A Restaurant's Attitude Toward Wine
Restaurants have brand images to uphold, and these brand images are on display in everything they do, from the time they take your phone reservation to the moment they hand you the check. Wine is also an extension of a restaurant's image.
The Wine List
The first clue to a restaurant's wine personality — and to the kind of wine experience you're likely to have — is the “list.” Some lists (if there is one at all) will only display a house red, a house white, and a house blush. This is not necessarily a bad thing: If you happen to be in a small ethnic restaurant offering some vino bianco from the homeland, this could be a wine night to remember.
At the other restaurant extreme, you will be handed a wine list that could easily be mistaken for an encyclopedia. The upside is that the establishment is serious about your total gastronomic experience; the downside is there are too many pages and too little time.
More than 3,300 restaurants worldwide have received Wine Spectator Awards for their wine lists. The award criteria include such things as regions represented and thematic match with the menu. Size also matters. Award of Excellence winners have at least 75 selections, Best of Award of Excellence winners have 350 or more, and Grand Award winners have 1,000 or more.
A restaurant reveals its personality or brand image not only by the number of wines on the list but by the range of producers it offers. Some lists will give you household names — highly advertised, popular, everyday wines. The goal here is comfort and dependability — again, not a bad way of doing things at all.
Restaurants that really care about the wine experiences of their guests will offer a varied selection — some familiar names, some unknown — regardless of list size. You can decide for yourself whether you're in the mood for something classic or something more adventurous.
The wine list will be handed to you by the sommelier, your server, or the restaurant host. The sommelier is the restaurant's wine specialist (and not all restaurants have one) who creates the wine list and often serves the wine. Any restaurant with a sommelier truly cares about wine. Sommeliers ave a reputation for being unapproachable, but this is not the case. They are knowledgeable, courteous, well-trained professionals who can guide your wine selection based on preferences, food pairings, and price. Chances are a sommelier will make your decision-making effortless.
Without a sommelier, you should direct wine questions to the server. Depending on the establishment, servers will be familiar enough with the wines to describe them and recommend dishes to complement them. Sometimes, you will have to make your own decisions.
Servers ill-equipped to provide knowledgeable wine recommendations reflect the personality of the restaurant in other ways. Look for these clues on your next night out:
Is your server trained to present and pour according to long-standing wine traditions?
Is your server attentive to you when your glass is empty?
Is your server overly zealous in pouring by prematurely topping off the glasses so you run out of wine before your entrée is served — necessitating another bottle?
If you went to a restaurant and ordered a $30 steak only to have it served on a paper plate, you would be furious. Sadly, that is the kind of treatment most of us have come to accept when we order fine wine: It is too often served in cheap glasses!
The typical glassware is either too small, too thick, or too warm. Sometimes the glasses have no stems — which may be acceptable for a theme restaurant — but an eatery that makes wine a priority respects its customers by using appropriate glasses.
Wine by the Glass
Ordering wine by the glass has made it so easy — and relatively inexpensive — to try new and unfamiliar wines. Be attentive, though, to how a restaurant treats its opened bottles.
As soon as a bottle is uncorked, the wine begins to deteriorate because of contact with the air. Proper storage, then, is paramount. If you sense that the restaurant does not have a preservation system that keeps its wines-by-the-glass fresh, it is perfectly acceptable to ask your server when the bottle was uncorked. If the wine has been hanging around for a day or two, you might be well served to make another selection.
One of the advantages of ordering by the glass is that a restaurant is usually willing to give you a taste before you buy. More than likely, the bottle is already open. Your server's attitude will quickly sour, however, if you ask to sample every wine-by-the-glass on the list.