Swirls: wine in restaurants – some help in navigating the shoals

For the average restaurant patron, ordering wine can be a daunting affair; wine lists are full of extremes, on one enred wined offering exhaustive lists with no clues on where to begin, at least not for the novice; on the other hand there are those cookie-cutter wine lists that offer few choices but with exhaustive descriptions and tasting notes that make every wine seem wonderful and experienced wine drinkers wince.

The more I think about this, I like the idea, embraced by a few  restaurants, of suggesting an appropriate wine or two with their dishes, giving customers at least a point of departure. As an alternative to specific wines, restaurants might propose specific varieties and regions with their dishes. Then, in consultation with a knowledgeable waiter or a sommelier, the choices could be narrowed down. All of this is just the beginning of the restaurant wine challenge.

Alan Richman of GQ has a useful and entertaining list of 15 tips on ordering wine in restaurants. Among those I like: letting you have a taste before ordering a wine by the glass (restaurants, he points out, aim to recoup their cost of a bottle with the first glass they pour, so a quarter-inch of wine, for those who ask for it, will hardly put a dent in profits, at least in my view);  other tips include making sure your wine arrives before your food, having your server pours you enough for your taste so you can actually get a sense of the wine, and frowning on the widely used practice of filling your glass almost to the brim in hopes that you’ll drink up and order another bottle.

This last one is among the more obnoxious in the wine server’s (and restaurant’s) bag of tricks. For one thing, it makes the highly enjoyable process of swirling, breathing in and experiencing the opening up of wine more difficult and has led me, on many occasions, to rather curtly announce to the waiter that “I’ll pour, thank you.”

Lastly, when ordering a bottle of white wine, please don’t automatically assume that the bottle should be plunged immediately into an ice bucket, as is still the practice in many restaurants. Most white wines taste better when they warm up a bit, which allows their complexity to emerge. Letting the wine sit on your table and pouring yourself an inch or so as needed can lead to a most enjoyable and relaxing wine experience and, I suspect, a real desire to order that second bottle.

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