“We want the finest wines known to humanity. And we want them here. And we want them now.”
Richard E Grant as Withnail in Bruce Robertson’s Withnail and I
Ordering wine in a restaurant is one of the most fearsome tasks known to mankind, for all the obvious reasons:
So how do you get your head round a restaurant wine list? What are the dos and don’ts of buying a bottle of wine when you’re out on a romantic dinner or dining in a trendy restaurant? How should you address the sommelier? Is “Oi, over ‘ere” really an acceptable way of summoning your wine waiter? And most importantly, can you know very little about wine but still end up with a decent bottle of wine?
Well here are ten basic tips that should answer all of the above:
TIP 1: FACE FACTS
Wines in restaurants are expensive and yes, they do overprice their wines a lot of the time. Simple answer, get over it. Lots of people complain about the mark-ups on wine and, while some restaurants really are taking the proverbial Pinot, others are simply trying to get by and make a profit.
Think of it this way – 2017 was a record year for restaurants opening in the UK, and in Brighton. But it also saw more restaurants close than actually opened. So it’s best to look at wine as the restaurant equivalent of a bucket of popcorn a the cinema or a pint of beer on the Champs Elysées, ie there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. You’re there, you’ve paid for it, so sit down, stop complaining and start enjoying yourself.
TIP 2: DON’T GET TAKEN FOR A RIDE
Just because you went once, it doesn’t mean you have to go again. If you think a restaurant is overpriced on the wine, steer clear next time, however good the food is.
Also, it’s quite easy to tell a restaurant that cares about wine. If it has a good selection of wines by the glass, as well as a relatively wide number of countries on the list, then you’re probably on to a winner. If the glasses are clean, large and clear, as opposed to tumblers (an annoying modern affectation for trendy restaurants) or Paris wine goblets, then life’s looking up in the wine department.
TIP 3: SPOTTING A GOOD LIST
There are several ways to spot a good list. As mentioned before a decent wines-by-the-glass section is a key indicator. Wine preservation techniques have come on so much over the last decade that most restaurants should be able to practically offer a wide range of their wines by the glass.
Also, is there a broad spread of countries. In other words lots of choice of wines from all around the globe.
And what’s their Champagne list like. If there’s just two Champagnes, a house one and a well-known brand, you could be in trouble. It probably won’t be the most imaginative list. However, if there are four or five well known brands, alongside a gaggle of less well-known Champagnes, and a choice of sparklers from around the rest of the world, then you’ve found a restaurant that cares.
Check out the prices on the fizz list too. Most of us know what a bottle of branded Champagne like Veuve or Moet. If its three times the price it is in your local off-licence, then the wine list is probably at the top end of price-heavy.
TIP 4: DON’T SKIMP
Some 30-40 per cent of the wine sold in restaurants will be the house wine. So figure it out. Which wines do you think the restaurant will be putting the biggest mark-ups on? Spend just a few more pounds per bottle and you should find yourself drinking better for not much more.
TIP 5: IF YOU DON’T KNOW, DO ASK
If the waiter looks blank, then points to the house wine, give up and have a beer instead. But if there’s a sommelier or wine waiter, pull him or her over and ask them for their advice and utilise their knowledge. They are there to help you.
TIP 6: SHOW NO FEAR
Sommeliers or wine waiters thrive on fear. It gives them the upper hand. Seriously, though, a lot of people are scared of sommeliers/wine waiters. They think they will be looked down on or made to look the fool, or ignorant. But a wine waiter is there to answer your questions and find you a wine that suits your tastes and is the best match with the food you’ve ordered. It’s what they are paid for, and it’s what the best of them do brilliantly. It’s also why your service charge will be nice and chunky so you’d better get your value out it. So stop being a scaredy cat.
TIP 7: HOW TO TELL A GOOD WINE WAITER FROM A RUM’N
This is actually relatively easy. When you call him or her over, tell them what you do and don’t like and importantly give them a price guide. Now if you tell them you want to drink white wine with your steak and spend no more than £30 a bottle and they come back and recommend a £40 red, you know you’ve got a wrong ‘un and one that’s taking the Piesporter.
TIP 8: MAKE THE MOST OF WINE BY THE GLASS
If the restaurant has a great range of wines by the glass (more than half a dozen of each colour or more) then make the most of it. Don’t be afraid to mix it up, because if you don’t like one glass, you can just move on to another. It’s a darn sight less expensive and unpleasant to work your way through one glass you don’t like all that much, rather than a whole bottle.
TIP 9: ALWAYS TASTE THE WINE
A lot people feel self-conscious when the waiter stands and pours the wine to taste. Don’t. It’s a lot more difficult explaining that you think the wine is duff once you’ve worked through half a bottle of it. Take your time. There’s no hurry. And still taste it if it’s a screwcap. The point of tasting a wine you’ve ordered is not just to make sure it’s not corked or “off” – it’s also to make sure you like it. And if you don’t like it, you should say so.
Most wines will, of course, be fine and will taste great. But if you have any doubts send it back. And don’t worry about offending the restaurant. Nine times out of ten they just send it back to the supplier and claim the money back off them, so no worries there.
TIP 10: DON’T LET THEM TAKE THE BOTTLE AWAY
If you’ve ordered a bottle of wine, you’ve every right to have it by your table. There’s a trend to keep customers bottles to one side or behind a bar or service station or in an central wine bucket, alongside everyone else’s opened bottles of wine. I don’t like it. I like to see my wine in front of me. Have it close to hand. Plus I drink so fast no wine waiter can keep up with me, so it’s just practical. I think I might start a petition in parliament.