Wine List Secrets While Dining Out

Wine selection is the single most important aspect that can make your dinner experience unique from the tables beside you. Hopefully your wine list will look somethnig like a small book consisting of several pages of selections. If you are prepared to spend between $50 and $100, I can help you find a remarkable bottle of wine. Did I just shock you with the price? If your table purchases 4 martinis for $16 each, that’s the equivalent of a $64 bottle of wine. And generally speaking, wine is usually paired better with food than martinis. Also, if you’d like to make the argument that $100 is too expensive for a bottle of wine, then I’d like to remind you that your $50 entrÃ?©e could be prepared with the same ingredients for less than $20 at home.

Buy the Glass or Buy the Bottle?
Remember that as a rule of thumb, a bottle of wine will consist of 4 glasses. Realistically, one bottle will comfortably serve 2 to 6 people. Don’t be too surprised if there is no savings in purchasing a full bottle. The best reward you will get in buying the bottle is freshness. This is important because if you happen to order a glass of wine that isn’t selling quickly, that bottle may have been opened two days prior to your arrival. When a bottle of wine is open too long, it may become flat like a soda that’s been sitting overnight.

Any restaurant is particular in choosing which wines they will offer by the glass. Their decisions are usually based on the accessibility of ordering in bulk, to be well liked among the majority, have a brand name for recognition, and to reflect the menu. As a result, these wines are often middle-of-the-road quality and commonly found in a supermarket. However, these wines are still worth a look because they are easily available to taste before purchasing. If you want to be confident, you could compare two or three samples and purchase the bottle of your choosing.

While scouting the wines available by the glass, be on the lookout for Wine Flights. These are pre-selected samplings of three or more wines with a unified theme. For example, you will be able to enjoy your appetizer with a Sauvignon Blanc, a Merlot with your Salad, a Cabernet with your entr�©e, and a sweet desert wine at the end. These may all be from California or tour several locations within Europe. To help keep the prices affordable and yourselves reasonable, these are generally 2 to 4 ounces per glass compared to a typical 6 to 8 ounce pour.

Reds, Whites, and Dollar Signs
The big question among yourselves is to think about a red or a white, and don’t immediately run to the reds because you’re having meat. The red with meat and white with fish rule is a blanket statement that might have you missing out. I have noticed that a more accurate interpretation might be that whites are good for the summer and reds are better in the winter. Another good reason to consider a nice white wine to go with your steaks is value. Dollar for dollar, the quality tiers for white wines make them an excellent alternative because of the demand for hearty reds.

Just as you decipher the wine list, your server is studying you. It’s not that they wish to humor themselves, but it is a good way for them to build a picture to see what you may be looking for. Without pointing directly on the pages, look at the prices and mentally eliminate all of those above or below your budget. A $300 bottle of wine is on the wine list to help promote the wines in your price range, and they are good for tossing care to the wind while being fabulous. But keep in mind that the cheaper the wine is on the list, the more it has been marked up. If you were to decide on a bottle of wine for under $30, you are likely to find the same bottle in your grocery store for less than $10.

Sampling the Wine
If you’re the lucky one who’s braved the wine list and chosen the selection, then you’re the likely candidate to taste the sample before it’s poured for the rest of the table. What is the waiter expecting from you when they pour an ounce of wine into your glass and hand you the cork?

Your primary responsibility at this time is to smell and taste the wine for any problems. Occasionally, a bottle will be bad and if it were passed to all the guests at the table, it might ruin everybody’s thirst for wine.

There are two typical faults in wine that can be easy to detect. If the wine is “corked”, you will be able to smell and taste an impression very much like wet cardboard. It may even smell like bad mold when it’s an obvious problem.

A wine may also be “cooked”, or exposed to too much heat at some point. This will have the wine tasting more like vinegar. This kind of flaw is harder to detect because many wines are made to have a strong initial impression. Often, decanting the wine will improve or balance the up-front vinegar effects.

If there is anything that leaves you feeling unsure about the wine, let your server know. A good waiter should be able to detect a flawed wine just by smelling it. If the wine is bad, you are certainly entitled to a replacement bottle.

The last thing that you’ll need to diagnose about the wine is your expectations. If your waiter recommended your wine and their descriptions of the wine are wrong and you are unhappy with it, then this would be another opportunity to ask for a replacement. For example, if your server had recommended a wine to you that is soft in flavor with floral scents, and what you’ve found was harsh, tannic, and tobacco, then you would be entitled to an exchange.

If you are pleased with your selection, especially if it is a rare wine that you’ve chosen, then you might want to offer your server a chance to pour a sample for themselves. It is a gesture that will certainly have your server remembering you, and it might bring a little extra service. In nearly every case that I’ve seen a table offer their waiter a taste of their good wine, desserts were pleasantly arranged to the guest’s surprise.

And what about the cork that you’ve been handed? If you smell it, it may, and probably should smell like cork. There is actually very little detective work you’ll need to do when you examine it. Whether because of an age or an overeager waiter, it is generally a good idea to check the bottom side of the cork for splinters that may indicate that there may be pieces floating in your wine. Tip: If you find a small piece of cork floating in your glass, a small corner of a paper napkin can be used to dip and cling to the debris, carrying it safely away.

One more word on corks; there are two alternatives to the standard cork that are quickly taking over the wine industry. Rubber, or synthetic corks are becoming more common, though these are generally found with wines that aren’t meant for long-term storage. But the radical change is approaching by way of the screw top. Much like a bottle of water, the screw top completely removes the cork altogether. Should you stay away from wines without corks? Actually, you are better assured of the quality of the wine with the screw top variety. The cork is ultimately a possible weak link in the complex process of winemaking. A cork may break down naturally, or dry out if the wine is not stored properly. So both for long-term storage or quick consumption, a corkless wine may indicate a sterile environment for the wine to mature.

Vintage Expectations
If the wine list you are looking at carries wine that is 5 to 30 years old, then you may be in for a wonderful treat. As wine matures in the bottle, changes take place and manipulate the overall flavors. If you think of a hill, wines will gradually improve in complexity until it peaks, or reaches its fullest potential, and then the wine will lose flavors and begin to turn flat. The actual shape of the hill, or potential of the wine will depend greatly on the wine’s design and how it has been stored. The best part of finding an older wine in a restaurant is that it should be a worry free purchase, instant gratification on the part of the consumer.

There will be several clues all throughout the restaurant that should influence your decision to buy an older wine. In the wine menu, how many older wines are available? If there are 25 or more older vintages, then we’re already looking good. How old is the establishment? In other words, if the restaurant is only two years old and they sell wines that are twenty years old, they should be able to tell you more about where they’ve been stored. Does the restaurant have a wine cellar? Most establishments will advertise their wines for all to see; after all, a wine cellar adds a great depth of character. If you haven’t been able to locate it, ask your waiter where the wines are stored. Remember that it’s not quite enough to have a good-looking cabinet to put them in. The wines should be comforted with a cooler, humidifier, and protected from sunlight. If the wine cellar is extensive, you might ask for a brief tour. Management is always proud to show off their hard work. Finally, ask about the restaurant’s return or exchange policy if the wine should prove to have turned bad. Some places stand by their collections and others will leave you with the risk. Simply by discussing some of these issues with older wines, you should receive excitement and accurate information from your server. You may even receive personal attention from a member of the team that cares for the collection.

Wine Service
Believe it or not, the wine glasses that you’ll be drinking from will make a big impact on the flavors of the wine. This is because most of that delicious flavor is registered by our noses rather than our taste buds. In the same way that our foods may taste bland while we become sick, the aroma of the wine awakens the senses and helps us distinguish the nuances we’re discovering. With this in mind, your wine glass should look somewhat oversized and fragile, but the wine should only be poured up to a third of the glass. Often, as you sit down at your table you will have a standard set of wine glasses. If your server looks to be pouring your wine into this glassware, ask if there’s a better set available. These glasses are better used to encourage wine sales and are more often used for the less expensive wines. If you don’t believe me about the wine glasses, this would be a good time to experiment. Have the server pour a little bit into differently shaped glasses and discover for yourself the vast differences.

If a white wine or champagne is arriving, it could be the common procedure to keep it chilled in an ice bucket. This is an obvious preference, but be aware that a wine can be too cold because this could hide much of the real taste. Also, the ice bucket doesn’t have to exclude reds. This is your wine and sometimes it’s nice to enjoy a softer red chilled.

If you’ve chosen a red wine, then your server may put the bottle through a decanting process. The basic principal of this process is to pour the bottle of wine into a larger glass vessel. This has several purposes depending on the particular wine, but nearly any red wine will benefit. First and foremost, a red wine will benefit from “opening up” and “breathing”. Think of the contents being mixed with air to release some of the more hidden nuances. Remember, it’s not just about how the wine tastes, but how it smells, and this process allows the aroma to fill our senses. Another purpose for essentially adding air into our wine mixture is to age the bottle artificially. Most wines are enjoyed prematurely, but aerating the bottle will promote the front end, often powerful, initial tastes to break down. To use a music analogy, it’s much like turning the bass down so that we might hear the more subtle and softer melodies. Older wines benefit from this decanting process in an additional way, as the tannic resin or solid particles can be filtered and left remaining in the bottom of the used bottle.

There’s generally a mesmerizing effect upon the audience of the decanting table. During that instant, we glimpse a wonderful waterfall of romantic notions, ahhhâÂ?¦ As enjoyable as this process makes the wine, it is still a show and it should be treated as such. This is an excellent opportunity for the restaurant to present their show, and why not? Another good promotion for decanting red wine at a table is the elevated equality of greatness. Whether you order a $10 or $100 bottle of wine, when it’s poured into a decanter, the label and ideas are removed, and the wine is better enjoyed.

There are arguments that waiters may present that might lead you away from decanting a red wine, after all, we don’t generally decant whites. In a few cases, I might agree that a red wine is better straight from the bottle. But these wines are usually fairly weak to begin with, and if that is their interpretation, then you might reconsider your selection before the wine is opened. However, there may be a more unqualified reason to avoid decanting your wine properly. Some restaurants are reluctant to provide this wine service because it’s simply unprepared to do so on a regular basis. Decanters are both expensive and taxing on a restaurant because they are generally difficult to keep clean and take up precious space. A restaurant or waiter may also base their decision on the lack of time they may be willing to give up, especially on a Saturday night situation. While thinking of a red wine, ask your server if they would be decanting your selection. If the process is unavailable, then I would recommend finding a nice bottle for less than $50, there’s simply no sense in purchasing a finer bottle if it can’t be enjoyed properly. For those who like to emulate this wine service at home, there are plenty of great wines that might better be decanted for several hours before drinking, though this kind of time isn’t popular while dining out.

Tipping Policies
What is the expected tipping policy on a bottle of wine? The flat answer among the servers is 20%, though as customers we must never forget that this is also known as gratitude. If you have been lucky enough to drink a $300 bottle of wine with your meal, is a $60 tip for this appropriate? There are some people who tip on wine and liquor, and those that don’t, but try to remember the service that you have received for this. A good waiter guides us through the lengthy wine list for a hidden or unique discovery, and puts in many extra steps for a complete wine service. Again, tipping is voluntary, but if you can afford this kind of pleasure, tipping 10 to 20% on your wine is worth the service and attention that you’ve been provided.

Bringing the Bottle Home
Purchasing a bottle of wine can be a commitment of sorts. What happens if you don’t want to finish the bottle?
Before ordering your wine, ask about the establishment’s policies regarding taking your wine home with you. Often, state or local laws dictate the policies. One particular area seeks to control the alcohol inside the premises, and so the restaurants are forced to keep the wine from leaving. This is a rather self-destructive flaw because the consumers will generally try leaving one way or another with the wine, ultimately more drunk and dangerous. Other policies may allow you to take the wine with you after the cork’s been replaced. Of course, if you don’t say anything, the staff will be happy to enjoy what’s left of your bottle.

If you’ve picked a nice bottle of wine, then chances are you’re enjoying it with an occasion in mind. You may consider taking the empty bottles with you as well. Often, the labels are colorful and can be removed. Another opportunity, especially for a larger group of guests, is to pass around a silver identification marker and have everybody sign a little something around the bottle. Remember that while you’re browsing the wine list, you’re not just buying the contents, but an overall experience.

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