Wednesday, July 20, 2016

How I order wine/How most people order wine

How I order wine:

First I try to determine how many bottles of wine we'll drink as a group. If it's just my wife and myself, it's either one bottle or wines by the glass. But in a group of four, it's probably at least two bottles, unless one of us is a teetotaller like the Republican Presidential ticket. In that case we just drink the Kool-Aid.

But seriously: when dining with most people, we get about one bottle per two diners. I don't think about ordering duplicate bottles unless it's a group of more than six.

I read the wine list and wait until the table has decided what food we're having. I ask for the sommelier. I wait 10 minutes. If it's any longer than that, I just order.

The sommelier arrives and says, "Do you have any questions about the wine list?" Every fucking time. Every single motherfucking time. But usually no, I don't have any questions about the wine list. I mean, I'd like to know what your markup is. Maybe what font it's printed in. Did you type it yourself or cut and paste? Maybe in sommelier school they tell them to open with that inane question. Am I missing something? Do lots of people have questions about the wine list? Like, "What was your inspiration for the Pinot Grigios on page 3?"




Sometimes I ask some smartass question like that, depending on how long I've been waiting. But usually I skip straight to business. I tell the sommelier what we ordered. I ask for a suggestion. By this time I have some wines in mind, but I want to hear her opinion.

If she makes interesting suggestions and has good reasons for them, I usually go with it. In San Francisco I go with the sommelier's suggestion more than 60% of the time. But that leaves 40% (higher in other cities.)

Sometimes I'm simply not in the mood for a wine she recommends, even if it's a good pairing -- can't drink Riesling every night. If she's trying to upsell me, I say, "I don't want to spend that much money" and ask about a wine in my price range. If she ignores that and keeps trying to push me too high price-wise, I realize I'm on my own. And sometimes she recommends wines I simply don't expect to like.

If I'm on my own, I try to make better pairings for other guests because I don't need a perfect pairing. I try to make sure the first bottle of wine we order for a group of four is delicious because there might not be a second. I usually, not always, order one white followed by one red. This is not a hard and fast rule but it gets us some diversity. I prefer to order wines I haven't tried, but with dining companions who aren't wine people, sometimes I fall back on favorites of mine for greater certainty, and also because I want to be able to tell them something about the wine, as the fact that I'm ordering without the somm's help means I can't expect help in that area either. To me, wine is more enjoyable with context, even if it's just knowing the story of the region.

Dining as a couple with my wife, I prefer wines by the glass because we can try more things. But sometimes the by-the-glass selections aren't interesting and/or there's a bottle I really want to try, so we do that. Once in a while there's a bottle I want so much that we arrange our food order to fit it, but usually we're food-first, wine-to-match people.

Do I survey the other diners for their input on the wine selection? Sure, but if I'm the one ordering, I usually try to stretch them into something they haven't tried. I don't try to make people drink a wine they tell me they dislike. I hate when people do that to me. But if they say they always drink Chardonnay, maybe I order a white Rhone blend, or if they don't know the grape that goes into white Burgundy (more common than you might think), I order one of those.

I'm not shy about sending back by-the-glass wine, especially if it was recommended. In fact, I usually ask for a taste of any by-the-glass wine before agreeing to it. Wines by the glass are rarely corked but 15-20% of wines I order by the glass are oxidized enough to be tired. I'm pretty shy about sending back bottles of wine I chose even if I don't love them, but I will ask the sommelier to taste it and tell me if it's supposed to taste this way. This is always worth doing if you don't love the wine. Maybe the bottle is off, or maybe the sommelier will ask if you'd rather have something else. I don't push for this option if I chose the wine, but I do want to drink a bottle of wine we enjoy. Most of the time we do.

How most people order wine:

The busboy arrives with water. They tell him, "We'll have a Pinot (scanning the list, looking for the second-cheapest one): this one."

Dammit. With all that extra time in a year ...

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5 comments:

Bob Kreisher said...

This is remarkably similar to how I do it. Except I'm not vexed by "Do you have any questions?". I do give points for the similarly, but original "What can I help you with?". Truth is, if I've asked for the sommelier, its because I have a question.

I'll often ask them to describe the differences between two wines. Like I'll pick two similar wines, in my price range and ask them to compare. One of the things I'm looking for is whether they really have tasted them recently and are describing real differences, or theoretical differences based on what the wines are. If they are just reciting generalities, I know I'm on my own. If they seem to know this particular wine, i'll almost certainly follow their guidance unless it just completely diverges from my taste. A good Somm is like a good sushi chef. Omakase.

Recently I was at a very highly regarded restaurant in Mexico City (a "Top 50" restaurant supposedly). I asked if a particular Riesling was dry. The Sommelier assured me, in the 5 seconds he gave me, that it was "completely dry". It wasn't. But it was quite good, and it was not so sweet as to be a bad pairing. So, despite the urge to get even for either stupidity or bad faith, I didn't send it back. But had the wine been a bad choice based on the inaccurate description, I definitely would have.

It also occurred to me that, although the somm ought to have an "international palate" at a place like this, the truth is, the wine might be considered "dry" by sugar loving Mexican standards. So there's that too. But really, a Somm ought to know the difference. In fact, they ought to be smart enough to size up our party (partly Mexican, partly American) and say something like, "Many people might consider it dry. Truth is, it has a bit of residual sugar. What are you thinking of pairing it with?" I would say it had 3-6 grams of RS. Not a lot by any means, but anybody worth of the title sommelier could and would detect it readily.

Joanne DiGeso said...

I too am shy about sending back bottles I don't like even though I am a sommelier and have been a wine director and I've never taken issue with anyone else sending bottles back. Therefore, I appreciate your approach when you don't love the wine. "I will ask the sommelier to taste it and tell me if it's supposed to taste this way."

This give the sommelier the opportunity to bring you a wine that may gain your loyal business while respecting that it may not be an option in the tool-kit of said sommelier (and who knows, maybe the boss hates that!)

Leo said...

@ Bob Kreisher,
I'm Mexican, working in the wine industry outside of Mexico, but I always go back to see family, etc... The Mexican wine industry is in many ways a baby. There is a lot to learn winemaking wise, but where I see the most issues is with the trade/commercial side.
There are lots of "sommelier schools" that only spread wrong information. So it is very common to have bad experiences with bad sommeliers.
However, the restaurant you mention as part of one of the "top 50", should have a sommelier that knows his stuff. In saying that, there's three or 4 main sommeliers in Mexico who are the most popular, best regarded, best in mexico, with most credentials... bla bla bla... and I always end up in fights with them on FB because the crap that comes out of their mouths is unbelievable.... there's a lot to learn and a long way to go.
However, 3-6 grams of RS is pretty much considered dry or almost dry in many countries. Most wineries where I've worked at (in and outside of Mexico), would consider 3g/l or less to be dry. So if the wine was 3-6 g/l and it was called dry, its not too bad of a call.
Leo.

Bob Kreisher said...

Saludos Leo! Thanks for the reply. I may be a case of "winemaker palate" or something like that. To me "dry" means all the fermentable sugar is fermented (ie, <0.2 g/l RS). I agree it wasn't a lot of sugar. And the wine was actually pretty good. I consider Mexico's rising wine industry to be quite strong and very interesting (Baja obviously, but also in GTO and QRO). The restaurant was in Polanco/D.F. I also ate at Patricia Quintana's restaurant nearby before she retired and closed it and I recall the Somm being very helpful. Like any profession, it can be hit or miss.

Bob Henry said...

Blake,

The two best pieces of advice you gave are:

"I try to make sure the first bottle of wine we order for a group of four is delicious because there might not be a second."

-- and --

"... I will ask the sommelier to taste it and tell me if it's supposed to taste this way. This is always worth doing if you don't love the wine. Maybe the bottle is off . . ."

What appears to be missing from this discussion is soliciting your wife for her opinion on what to drink.

~~ Bob