wine book cover
Catherine Fallis Master Sommelier, aka grape goddess

The Wine List is My Friend
For business and for pleasure, think of your guests first. Don’t worry about what they may think of you. Being honest and drawing them into the process is more impressive than pretending to know more than you do about wine. Also, depending on your rapport with the sommelier, ask him or her for suggestions, scanning your guests’ faces as they make a recommendation. Ask your guests what they have liked in the past, what their favorites are. Get a feel for their tastes. Get them involved in the decision-making. This is a win-win situation.

Getting Down to Business
Ask what each of your guests is eating. If choices are all over the board, and if the selection is interesting and well-priced, suggest, at least with the first course, that everyone choose a wine by the glass. Unless you have a good enough rapport with the group to bring everyone to a consensus, this is the least intrusive way to go. As the wine and conversation begin to flow, ordering additional wine may not present as many obstacles. Don’t order a bottle of wine if you are not the host, unless the host has specifically asked you to do so.

Sometimes You Need to Take Charge
If you’d like to take charge of the ordering, begin with an aperitif, an appetite-opener. Enlist your server’s attention as soon as you sit down. In fact, when you arrive at the table, attempt right away to establish a rapport with your server and sommelier. Ideal choices for aperitifs are sparkling wine or Champagne, or a dry, tart, appetite-stimulating wine such as a French Sauvignon Blanc (Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire Valley or an inexpensive white Bordeaux) or a Sauvignon Blanc from California or New Zealand (ask for one that is not oaky). Order this immediately and ask that it be served right away. This helps to break the ice, slake the thirst, wash out the road dust, and sets the tone for a convivial table.

Bang for the Buck
Don’t order the least expensive wines by the glass or bottle. This is where the highest markups are found. Go up $1-3 in a glass, or $3-8 in a bottle, and you will get a lot more bang for the buck. A “sliding scale? is used more often these days than a straight three-times markup, with the exception of resorts and country clubs. With the “sliding scale? approach, the more the wine costs the restaurant, the less they will mark it up. More profit is made at the bottom end. The best deals are at the upper end. Reputable establishments that charge standard to high wine markups are covering the cost of wine storage and handling, glassware, decanters, and well-trained servers.

Ready for The Next Bottle?
Look for older vintages, especially in well-established restaurants with large wine cellars. Unless the restaurant has just acquired them at today’s cost, these are hidden values. With more than four people order a magnum (1.5 L, or the equivalent of two 750 ml bottles). Magnums are impressive and may have a good price/value ratio. Plus, you just might get extra attention from your server or sommelier. Avoid Squawking Chicken and Silver Choke. California Cult Cabs and Chards are selections to avoid when looking for deals. Everybody wants them to the point where some restaurants actually raise the prices to slow down sales.

Price Breaks

In the recent heady days before the current downcycle, many wines were highly overpriced. While retail prices have come down, you may still frequently encounter overpriced wines on restaurant wine lists. Ask your sommelier to recommend wines that have hidden value. Perhaps their names do not have a cult following. Perhaps the too-powerful wine press didn’t care for their unique style and balance. Perhaps they didn’t have enough muscle and brawn to TKO the judge. Perhaps they are an ugly-duckling varietal. Or perhaps they are just plain old unpopular. These wines are a treasure trove.

Excerpted from the grape goddess guides to good living, “Wine in Restaurants? with permission from the author.
?2003 Catherine Fallis MS, Planet Grape LLC

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