When Wine Is on the Menu

1996

It’s no surprise that some wine lovers steer away from the stuff when dining out. I cringe when I see restaurant wine lists that are long, expensive or so limited to generic plonk that they bore me to beers. But it’s a joy to find a restaurant where the wines are well-matched with the menu. Here are my tips on how to be a class act when ordering and enjoying wine at any restaurant, from a bistro to Biba.

Ordering Wine&emdash;Your server should know the list and food pairings better than anybody (even wine writers). So ask for a recommendation. Give your server a price range, as in We’d like something to go with both the rib-eye and the sea bass, and we’d like to come in under $100.

If your server is into wine, she will welcome the chance to demonstrate her expertise. Ask questions such as What wine are you into these days? and you might even get a free pour. Tip accordingly.

Be open to trying new things. A screw-top Chenin Blanc from South Africa or a Rhone ros from the Sierra foothills may be the best bargain on the list.

Ordering wine can be especially stressful when you aren’t the host or if you are splitting the bill with another couple. If handed the list, I discreetly ask my companions what price range they feel is appropriate. I would hate to order something outside their comfort zone, whether too high or too low.

Only Dorks Sniff the Cork&emdash;When you order wine in a restaurant, the server brings the bottle to your table and pours a smidgen for your approval. This is not about whether you like the wine. Instead, you need to ask yourself the following three questions:

1. Is it what I ordered? Before your server opens the wine, make sure the label matches the brand (i.e., Madroña), appellation (El Dorado) and vintage (2003) you ordered, and that the cork bears the winery name or logo. I know it sounds paranoid to check that the foil wrapper and the cork are original, but in France I once was served a bottle of pricey old Châteauneuf-du-Pape that had been filled with cheap new vin de pays and secured with a blank cork.

2. Is the bottle in decent shape? Look for signs of improper storage, such as mold around the cork or label, wine stains on the top of the cork, a crumbling label or disintegrating cork. Check the level of the wine in the bottle, known by its delightful French name ullage. If the top of the wine is lower than the bottom of the foil, the wine may have suffered in storage.

3. Is the wine sound? Smell the wine, not the cork, OK? A moldy smell (and a taste that’s been likened to wet cardboard or a musty basement) may mean the wine is infected with 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole&emdash;TCA for short, also known as cork taint. It can happen to the nicest wines, like that ’97 Talley Rosemary’s Vineyard Pinot Noir I had been saving, only to pour down the drain last week. If it’s corked, send it back.

Sometimes TCA will simply maim, not kill, a wine, and the effects are not obvious. If you aren’t sure whether the wine went bad in the bottle or just is bad in your opinion, say to the server, I’m not familiar with this vintage, but I think this tastes odd. Would you mind trying it for me?

OK to BYOB?

Unlike stashing a salad in your purse, bringing your own bottle to a restaurant can be respectable, not rude, if you play your cards right. The trick is to bring a special wine: one with higher monetary, gustatory or sentimental value than what’s on the restaurant’s list. Be prepared to pay between $10 and $40 per bottle in corkage fees to ease the restaurant’s pain of losing the wine sale.

Is your bottle worthy? Here’s what won’t insult the restaurant:

• A special-occasion wine that has sentimental value, such as wine you discovered on your honeymoon and that you’ll open for your anniversary.
• Rare or esteemed wine that blows away anything on the restaurant’s list in quality and price.
• Cellared wine that is now more fabulous than any of the underage whippersnappers the restaurant’s serving.

Helpful Hints

Call ahead. Ask if the restaurant allows BYOB, and make sure that your wine is not on its list.

Follow the axiom Bring one, order one. Many places, such as The Waterboy and 55 Degrees, will waive the corkage fee on the bottle you bring if you also buy one off the menu.

Offer the chef or owner a pour if you’re feeling generous. Ditto for your server.

Tip your server as if you had ordered a bottle.

Elaine’s Pick of the Month

Kudos to the server at the now closed Il Posto, who admitted he didn’t know much about the wine list and got the owner to make a recommendation for us. The 2000 Filippo Gallino Roero Superiore ($36) was a sensitive collaborator with our food, making for a delicious meal. The 2001 vintage of this welcome alternative to the pricey Nebbiolo wines from Barolo and Barbaresco is thought to be suited for aging ($18, Corti Brothers).

Wine Trivia Contest

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E-mail your answer to wine@sacmag.com by Aug. 15. The winner will receive an insulated two-bottle wine tote from Built NY. Make sure to include your name, address and telephone number. The winner will be selected by random drawing from all the correct responses.

We’ve got a winner! In June, we asked:  If you have a white wine from the Burgundy region of France, the grape used was a) Pinot Gris, b) Chardonnay, c) Riesling, d) a blend of these. The correct answer: Chardonnay. The winner, Leslie Jones of Sacramento, received an insulated wine tote.

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