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How to Read a Wine List

Wading through all those options can be easier than you think.
By Joseph Nase

All you wanted was a bottle of wine.

Now, you're looking down the barrel of a sixty-page list. You've got six guests (or one very special one) vying for your attention, but you don't have six hours -- or even six minutes -- to conquer this tome. A lot of folks, faced with this situation, reach out for one of three or four familiar bottles they've committed to memory -- perhaps a Jordan Cabernet or a specific white Burgundy. That's not the worst idea, but I have a better one: Reach out to the sommelier.

It's amazing how few people accept the assistance of the sommelier. The days of the tuxedoed cellar master clanking his silver chain and cup around his neck, practicing the fine art of intimidation and pretentiousness, are (I hope) a distant memory. Today's sommeliers are here to serve you.

Any good, reputable sommelier will be the in-house expert not only on wine, but more importantly on his or her own wine list. No matter how much you know about wine in general, the sommelier possesses the essential specific knowledge about his or her cellar, the provenance of its wines and their current states of development. Sommeliers know their chefs, usually better than their spouses, and can provide invaluable advice on matching wines to your menu selections (it's virtually impossible for a customer, reading a menu description, to identify the dominant flavor component in a dish -- it may very well come from an unlisted ingredient). Even as a wine professional with a wall of degrees and certificates, I always (well, almost always) defer to the on-the-scene sommelier when I dine out.

Reveal yourself to the sommelier. Be direct and straightforward. How are you feeling tonight? Are you cold, warm, tired, looking to be challenged? Are you a person who wants the ideal pairing with every course, or do you prefer a bold red no matter what you're eating? These are the points of reference the sommelier needs in order to tailor the evening's wine selections to your desires.

How much do you want to spend? Whether it's $50 or $5000, everyone has a comfort zone. The best way to communicate this, at the table, in front of your guests, is by pointing to a price on the list (it doesn't matter which wine it is), and saying, "I'd like to be in this region." Your guests will think you're talking Bordeaux appellations, not price.

If you want to plan a really special wine-and-food evening, call the restaurant ahead of time. Every sommelier appreciates the guest who calls days or even weeks in advance to discuss the list (we wouldn't be sommeliers if we didn't love to talk wine). Often, the sommelier will offer to e-mail you a section of the list, or acquire a special bottle at your request. Perhaps, over time, you'll establish a trusting relationship with this sommelier. For those who love wine, that's a relationship worth nurturing.