For me, the best part of dining out has always been the wine list. Of course the service, cuisine and not having to clean up are all wonderful, too, but as an inveterate wine-drinker and passionate collector, it's the chance to sample an assortment of wines and vintages with different foods that makes dining out something special. A good wine can often elevate the cuisine, creating tastes and combinations that become more than the sum of the meal's parts.
Of course, knowing what wines to select can often seem baffling to someone who enjoys wine casually. Fortunately, it only takes a small amount of knowledge to navigate the wine list and start making a meal something more than the foods on the plate.
The easiest way to gain some familiarity with different wines is to attend a wine tasting. Several businesses around the Inland Northwest offer regular opportunities to sample the products of different grapes, vintners, and vintages. Vino! holds at least two tastings weekly: a free one on Friday and a low-cost tasting on Saturday. Huckleberry's also has a weekly tasting, with a moderate fee and reservations requested. Both events let tasters sample a number of different wines and enhance the experience with commentary about the wine's type, style, vintage and possible food pairing. Vino!'s Friday tasting is particularly friendly for wine newcomers and connoisseurs alike, with many of the selections new even to the store's helpful staff.
It's also easy to jump into the tasting experience at restaurants that offer a varied selection of wines by the glass. Ranging between $3 and $8, the wide variety of single glass selections at wine bars and restaurants like Mizuna and Niko's won't break the bank and can be tasted with foods. Even restaurants like Quinn's and Europa, which don't have an inordinate number of wines available by the glass, offer diverse enough selections to illustrate what makes a Pinot Noir a Pinot Noir and not a Cabernet.
Even when the order of the evening is dining instead of tasting, however, it's easy to make a selection that can suit the food for everyone at the table. Many restaurants, such as Luna and the Wine Cellar in Coeur d'Alene, have extensive lists that allow for ample exploring. And some places, like Luigi's and Solstice, have smaller selections that are so well chosen for their menus that it's almost impossible to make a bad choice. But if you're making the wine selection on your own, consider qualities such as acidity, body, sweetness and aroma.
A meal of fish, or fattier white meat, matches perfectly with a light-bodied, highly acidic wine such as a Riesling or a Sauvignon Blanc. Effective in much the same way that lemon juice is, these wines help your taste buds cut through the stronger fats of the food and emphasize the light textures on the plate. Their lower alcohol content also pairs well with saltier foods. In contrast, rich, fruity wines like Chardonnay, Semillon and Pinot Gris pair well with richer dishes like pastas and poultry. Cream and cheese sauces or garnishes match well with these wines' subtle sweetness, and roasted nuts, vanilla and honey can echo the aromas perfectly.
If dining out means simple, robust foods like pasta with tomato sauce or pizza, consider a light-bodied, fruity red wine, such as a Beaujolais or a Dolcetto. Not only do their straightforward flavors and relatively high acidity stand up to the bold flavorings in many popular restaurant dishes, but they're light-bodied enough to pair well with other plates that may be at the table, like salads and seafood.
Tastes that run toward Mediterranean foods, with their emphasis on olive oil instead of butter, and herbs instead of salt, might enjoy a Chianti or a Burgundy (Pinot Noir). Elegant and silky, these wines have enough spice to stand up to red meats, but enough grace to elevate the more subtle notes of spring vegetables to something extraordinary. But if you want to try something richer, like roasted meats or spicy sauces, order a slightly fuller-bodied red such as a Zinfandel or Merlot.
Of course, full-throttle red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Nebbiolo can stand up to the boldest flavors and richest dishes. Their high tannins (the things that cause your mouth to feel dry when drinking red wine) demand a certain amount of protein, so avoid drinking these with fish or light vegetable dishes. But roasted meats and caramelized sweet vegetables are classic matches.
An often overlooked wine to order with dinner is a sparkling wine. With their delicate aromas and toasty flavors, sparkling wines can match most lighter dishes like soups and salads, while their acidity and effervescence refreshingly cut through richer fare like fried foods and fish. Plus, good sparkling wine is often priced within the same range as a decent red, and the mood it creates at the table is far more festive. Avoid the astronomically priced, big-name bottles with confidence, unless you're out to celebrate.
Finally, keep in mind that many restaurants accept corkage fees; this is money that you pay the restaurant to serve you a wine that you bring yourself. Ranging between $5 and $15, corkage fees are often less expensive than ordering a bottle of wine from a restaurant. But observe proper etiquette when bringing your own bottles. Call first to make sure the wine you want to drink isn't offered on the wine list; mention that you would like to bring a bottle with you when you make your reservation. If possible, order at least one bottle, or a few drinks, from the restaurant, particularly if you're not a regular.
And keep in mind that chefs often enjoy encountering new wines as well. On one visit to Luna, I sent a glass of a rare French wine I had brought with me back to the kitchen, and our server returned to the table and suggested some changes to our dinner so that the wine would be a better match -- proving that when it comes to wine and food, flexibility is the only rule that matters.