His hands were so clammy they stuck to the pages. In listening to what his guests were ordering, the lines on the pages began to blur as sweat beads dropped from his forehead. A sense of dread set in as he imagined himself fumbling around, ordering the wrong wine for his dinner party. Fortunately, the restaurant sommelier recognized the familiar doe-in-the-headlights look and stepped in to offer assistance.
It can be intimidating to order wine in a restaurant, searching for the best value, best wine while hoping to add a great dimension to the dining experience. Restaurants with large inventories will present a voluminous list from around the world and the poor schmuck ordering has to figure out not only what to pick, but how to pronounce it. The truth is most people believe they don't have the knowledge to ask the right questions.
For the business person who has to make such choices, having a little wine knowledge can go a long way to make a business dinner a successful and enjoyable event. Greg Lipsker, co-winemaker at Barrister Winery in Spokane, says he recently worked with a graduating class of MBA students on how to order wine because it's something they might have to do in their careers.
The old rules of food and wine pairing, while tried and true, have just as many exceptions. It used to be white wine with fish, seafood and chicken and red wine with red meats such as beef and lamb. Yet there are thousands of foods and wines and all kinds of possibilities for a good match.
The Marriage of Food and Wine & r & Before ordering wine, there are some very loose guidelines to remember:
Although many fish and seafood dishes work well with red wines, white wines are more acidic and delicate and generally complement fish better. White wines work well with lemon and the creamier sauces that top many fish dishes. (An exception is salmon and Pinot Noir--a match made in heaven).
& lt;ul & & lt;li & Red meats need tannins to soften the proteins in meat--especially young wines. Older reds have more flexibility as the tannins round out and become softer and supple. & lt;li & Many people don't like wine with salads, since dressings often contain vinegar, which can reduce any wine to something unpleasant. If you avoid vinaigrette dressings and go for more citrus flavors, a crisp Riesling will work. & lt;li & Don't forget that sparkling wines can be a lifesaver when you have an array of different foods at the table, especially seafood and chicken. & lt;/ul &
Other guidelines include serving salty foods before sweet foods; serving lighter foods followed by heavier foods, white wine before red wine and younger wines before older wines. Move from simple to more complex wines and serve more youthful wines before opening mature wines. Keep in mind that as oxygen hits an older wine, it will fade faster in the glass than a buoyant, youthful wine.
Pastas with tomato-based sauces love Chianti, Pinot Noir, Beaujolais and Zinfandel. If the pasta contains meat, both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot can work well. Salmon pairs well with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and a fresh Beaujolais. Oysters and other shellfish work with the minerality of a Sauvignon Blanc or a Muscadet. I love any kind of mushroom with Pinot Noir or a buttery Chardonnay. When you think steak, think Cabernet Sauvignon; lamb works with a big Australian Shiraz or Pinot Noir.
Before Ordering & r & If this is a business dinner, a little work ahead of time will make the evening a fantastic success. Keep in mind that in upscale restaurants, the staff generally has tasted many of the wines with foods offered.
If there is a sommelier or wine steward, he or she might have a few gems tucked away, so always ask if there are some offerings that are not on the menu. You might even ask what the best-selling wines in the restaurant are, to give you an indication of popularity.
If you are the host, ask your dinner guests what they like. If you have three guests who like red wine, and one guest who only drinks white, but beef and seafood are part of the order, then plan on a bottle of red and white. If you have a couple of beef eaters, a fish order and a vegetarian, consider Pinot Noir--a wine that works well with all those dishes.
Consider connecting your wine choice with the regional food--if Italian, consider an Italian variety, such as Chianti, Sangiovese or a super Tuscan blend of Italian varietals. Spanish wines are a terrific bargain in many cases and work well with tapas, olive and cheese plates and red meats.
Have in mind your wine budget. A general ratio is one 750ml bottle to three people who enjoy wine in moderation. If the dinner party is comprised mostly of people who would drink one glass of wine with dinner, but they all want something different, consider wine by the glass. (In this case, you can ask for a taste, since the wine is generally open already). However, if you can get the red and white wine drinkers to agree on a wine, you will likely save on money if you purchase a bottle. Give your server a monetary range for the wines.
The Wine-Ordering Ritual & r & One you have selected the wine(s), the wait person will bring the unopened bottle to your table and show you the label. Before he or she opens the wine, check the label to make certain it is the wine you ordered--sometimes the wrong year or varietal is presented, which is different than what you originally ordered. Most restaurant staff will point this out, but some won't, or even realize it.
Restaurant staff will offer the host, or whoever speaks up, to check or smell the cork. There is a very good reason for this--wine industry officials say about 10 percent of the corks in wine are bad, and can cause a slight "off" flavor, or a full-out cork taint that smells like a wet horse blanket. If you can smell or taste the off flavor, let the server know.
A small amount will be poured and offered to the host. Only a small amount should be poured, and it is best to swirl it around in the glass to allow air to unlock flavors. Look at the color, smell it and if all is well, take a small taste. You can ask others at the table to do the same if you like. Once you have agreed that the wine is not flawed, the staff will pour the wines. Keep in mind that you cannot ask the staff to take back the wine if you just don't like it. It isn't fair to the restaurant, which is why you talk about the wines before ordering.
Ordering Tips & r & My advice is to skip the house wine if you can, unless the establishment has a good reputation for selecting good, value wines. It is often a wine that is the cheapest for the restaurant and the highest mark-up. Often, the most expensive wines have the lower mark-up because the wines are so expensive.
Your dinner party will be less uncomfortable if you don't fake or exaggerate wine expertise that you don't have. Involve your dinner party guests as part of the ritual. More conversations are sparked with a joyous selection of the perfect wine that works well with the food. Less experienced wine tasters may not know how to describe what they are tasting, but their responses to a great match are hard to miss. It ranges from a wide-eyed surprise and a big smile, to the gastric groan of the best flavors to hit their palates in many moons.
If the restaurant allows it, I always provide a short taste to the wait person in a small glass to take back and try a wine at a later time that he or she might not always get to taste, because of the expense or limited availability.
If you have a favorite wine that is not on the wine list, consider asking the restaurant staff ahead of time if you can bring it. Restaurants will charge a corkage fee for opening it that ranges from $5 to $20, with the average price around $10-$15.
Finally, once you understand the rules of thumb
for wine, choose which ones to break and which ones
to keep, and make up your own rules. If you have a favorite red wine, and you want to have fish--do it. A little knowledge lingers, like the finish in the perfect glass of wine, inspiring you to delightful dinnertime conversations.