5 Questions from a Cork Dork to Pick a Wine Flawelessly

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Advice From Sommeliers on Buying Wine

Feel like a Pro in a Restaurant or Wine Store!

Everyone feels ill-prepared when it comes to picking wine. Even Sommeliers working at restaurants can be intimidated by making the right recommendation for their guests’ food, budget and personality. Whether you’re walking into a wine shop, eating at a restaurant, or shopping online, there are opportunities to make better choices and certainly opportunities to make exceptional ones. Follow the five questions below.

 

Question One: Is wine even the right choice?

Ask yourself this very important first question. To help you decide…

  • Are you at a dive bar or restaurant?

    • I suggest having cocktails, spirits or beer at bars. Save wine for restaurants with REAL wine programs. I’ll tell you more about how to identify “REAL” just below.

  • Do you have a 3-hour train commute or heading to a concert in the park?

  • Are you at a restaurant and there’s a (slightly terrifying) Sommelier hovering over your table?

    • Don’t be scared! Pick up that wine list and make eye contact with the Sommelier staring at you. When he/she arrives, smile with confidence and ask for their recommendations. Mention price, if you are not with clients or on a date. This will really help them help you. I usually start with “I want something delicious and something I have not tried before. I am looking to spend no more than $80.” If I want to keep price undercover, I will point my finger to an $80 selection and ask “What is this like?”. Be sure to have your finger pointing at the price when you ask. The Sommelier will likely offer three suggestions surrounding your budget: one low, one medium and one high. If the Sommelier makes the “high” one sound incredible he’s going for the sale but the wine will probably be incredible. If she makes the “low” one sound incredible she’s in it for the long hall and wants to gain your trust. The Sommelier will be back to go for the sale on bottle number two. There’s more on how to pick your budget just below.

  • Are you at a wine store that carries wine from only one place (i.e. all American), that has nothing over $20 or nothing under $50?

    • Sometimes I find wine shops, especially outside of urban centers, to be “monochromatic”. I have seen entire stores with only California wine and perhaps a token Chianti. This can make it harder to find a great bottle despite the massive number of options from their selected region. Head to check out the spirits section.

    • Stores with only “cheap” wines or stores with only expensive wines are also of concern when I am shopping. Wine does not have to be expensive to be delicious; not even close. But if they don’t give you a range of price categories they are probably trying to move out bulk wine that they got for a steal or they have over-priced their wine and are trying to gouge you. No thank you!

  • Are you at a restaurant that has a wine list on the back of the food menu with only about 5 choices, including a white zinfandel?

    • Does the list just show grape type and not producer or vintage?

 
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Check out this menu from my visit to New Jersey this weekend

(I ordered a martini…)

 
 

Now, answering questions two and three below will inform your budget.
Keep track of your points using this scale:

  • 0 = nope

  • 1 = sounds about right

  • 2 = yes

  • 3 = OMG Yes!

Question Two: Is this a special occasion?

  • 0 = No occasion just hoping for something yummy

  • 1 = It’s our first date so I don’t really know if it’s a special occasion yet

  • 2 = Visiting friends for the weekend. I need a bottle as a host present.

  • 3 = It’s my 25-year Wedding Anniversary!

Question Three: Who are you going to enjoy this with?

  • 0 = No one! Mine, mine, mine!

  • 1 = With my 5 best college pals

  • 2 = With my client who only likes cult Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.

  • 3 = My friend who knows everything about everything, especially wine!!!

Question Four: What’s your budget—restaurant or retail pricing?

Restaurants are an exciting place to experience wine you cannot get anywhere else. If done well, you will enjoy your wine in a great glass and it will come with service and an experience that you just cannot get by popping it open at home. For this reason, and because of the restaurant’s overhead, expect to spend 3x the price for the same bottle you might buy at a wine retail store.

For me, a special wine to buy for a dinner at home with my husband feels right at about $30 a bottle. If I spotted that wine on a restaurant’s wine list, I would expect it to cost $90. Alternatively, a $10 “everyday” wine for home would cost $30 at a restaurant and a $100 bottle of Krug Champagne at a wine shop will cost $300 at a restaurant.

 

Retail Budgeting

  • 0 to 1 point: $9 - $18

  • 2 - 3 points: $19 - $26

  • 4 - 5 points: $27 - $85

  • 6 points: $86 - priceless

Restaurant Budgeting

  • 0 to 1 point: $27 - $54

  • 2 - 3 points: $55 - $78

  • 4 - 5 points: $79 - $255

  • 6 points: $256 - priceless

 

Question Five: Will you be having food with your wine?

Pairing wine with food, whether you’re at home, in the park or at a restaurant, can be the hardest but most rewarding part! I am a student of the Court of Master Sommeliers and they have some great words of wisdom on the subject. These, and my own journey with food and wine, have helped me create these guidelines:

The Basic Principals

  • Match the wine intensity to the food intensity.

  • Understand important interactions:

    • Salt - will reduce the palette’s perception of acidity in the wine. It will also intensify tannin (present in all red wines and is the astringency and bitterness that the palate senses).

    • Animal Fats - will reduce the palette’s perception of tannin in the wine. Conversely, the tannin will make meats and cheese feel less rich and fatty on the palate. “Fat loves Tannin and Tannin Loves Fat!”.

    • Sugar - sugar in food works best with sugar in wine. This is not just true for dessert; many dishes have sauces that contain sugar.

    • Spicy Heat - works best with wines that are “off-dry”, slightly sweet or low in alcohol.

What grows together goes together.
— The Foundation for most food and wine pairings
 
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amazing pairings you Should try…

Sancerre + goat cheese both sourced from The Loire Valley in France.

White Truffles + Barolo both from Piedmont in Italy.

Assyrtiko (a Greek white) + baked trout from Santorini, Greece.

Try a Rosé from the Provence Region of France + citrus-infused fish like ceviche!

 
 
 
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Want more?

Check out my tour de France: Flaweless Wine Pairings for Any Dinner!