Although sommeliers are becoming less snooty, it’s not abnormal to feel intimidated when you’re handed the heavy, leather-bound, veritable book of a winelist at a fancy restaurant.
How can you make a choice that won’t embarrass you and/or cost you a lot of money?
Here are eight steps to ordering wine that might just make a date more romantic, a business lunch more successful, a celebratory splash-up meal with friends more fun…
1. Take your time.
Do not feel pressurised if the sommelier/wine steward/waiter interrupts your conversation to ask what you’d like to order before you’ve even had a look at the winelist. And NEVER feel patronised if he/she asks, ‘Do you need help?’ Just look up, smile, and say it’s such an interesting list that you’ll need a few more minutes. He/she’ll think you know what you’re doing (and so will your date/boss/impressionable friends…).
2. Decide between red or white.
This single decision will cut the winelist in half. First ask your table companion(s) what they’d prefer. The answer will almost invariably be, ‘I don’t mind, you choose.’ If it’s lunchtime, your best bet is white. Otherwise think about what kind of restaurant you’re in. A steakhouse? Red. A restaurant specialising in seafood? White. If it’s not that obvious, establish what most people will be eating.
3. See whether the restaurant specialises in a certain style of wine or area.
If there are 10 white blends and three token Chardonnays, go with a blend. Similarly, if there are an unexpectedly high number of wines from a relatively small wine area like, say, Elim/Agulhas, chances are the owner has spent some time getting to know its wines. Let him take you on his journey.
4. Eliminate the ‘icon’ wines.
Given the 300% mark-ups typical of many restaurants, are you really going to order anything over R1000? Of course not.
5. Ignore the wines you already know.
If you can buy the same wine from the your local bottle store for half or even a third of the price, are you really going to enjoy drinking it at a restaurant? Rather pay the mark-up as an investment in a new discovery.
6. So what ARE you willing to spend?
If you’ve budgeted to spend R250 a bottle but nothing grabs you, maybe you’d better be flexible – you’re eating out, after all! Either way, decide what you’re willing to spend and mentally cross out everything else.
7. Choose two or three from the handful of wines left, then call the sommelier/wine steward over.
Don’t say, ‘Out of these two, which one do you recommend?’ (All too often it’ll be the pricier one…) Rather say, ‘What can you tell me about these two wines?’ You’ll quickly be able to tell which one he/she’s more excited about.
8. Order it. It should be great. And if it isn’t, at least it’s something different and interesting.
Who isn’t looking for good value these days? Here are eight tips to help you find it when eating out:
1. Avoid wine by the glass.
Restaurants like to make enough on a single glass to pay for a whole bottle. Fair enough. After all, what if nobody else orders a glass of that wine while it’s still drinkable? And here’s where the real problem arises. All too often, an open bottle will be kept for too long, in the wrong conditions. A glass of wine from that bottle simply won’t be as good as it could be. (The major exception are wine bars which specialise in wines by the glass, keeping open bottles under almost vacuum-like conditions and at the optimal temperature.)
2. Don’t automatically avoid the house wine.
The fact that the restaurant has embraced a particular wine as its ‘own’ suggests that it might just be surprisingly delightful – or at least inexpensive and very drinkable.
3. Avoid the big brands.
It’s precisely because they’re so popular that they’re so often given the biggest mark-ups. And even if you love a particular wine, are you really going to enjoy it if you know you can buy it at your local supermarket for a third or even a quarter of the price?
4. Avoid the second-cheapest wine on the list.
Of course you don’t want to look cheap by ordering the least expensive wine – but restaurateurs know this, so they’ll really fleece you on the second-cheapest. The least expensive one is probably a much better choice.
5. Avoid the in-vogue variety.
Sauvignon Blanc is South Africa’s favourite white, and on a hot summer’s day restaurateurs know that most people won’t even look beyond the Sauvignon section. But you should. The Savvies are almost certainly overpriced, probably grossly. You’ll get much better value if you order a less popular wine such as Chenin Blanc. (It really is time people realised that SA’s best/oldest vineyards are Chenin…)
6. Avoid the older vintage, if two are offered.
But aren’t older wines better? Not necessarily, and certainly not if the restaurant isn’t a fine-dining establishment that prides itself on its perfect cellaring conditions. It’s tough in the restaurant business right now, so many owners are desperately trying to get rid of old stock. (Similarly, if the winelist says 2009 and you get a 2008, insist that you really do want the 2009…)
7. Don’t avoid foreign wines, particularly if there’s a good selection from a particular country/region.
If you’re in an Italian restaurant and there are, say, a dozen wines from Tuscany at a good price relative to the South African wines, chances are the owner knows and loves this region – and has sought out some good value for his customers..
In the Cape, it’s quite acceptable to bring your own wine to a restaurant, normally for a fairly reasonable corkage fee (typically between R20 to R50). But the point of BYOB isn’t (just) to save money, which is why I’ve dedicated a whole section to it.
To BYOB or not to BYOB
Most restaurants don’t actively encourage you to bring your own booze. Why should they? Even if they charge a corkage fee for opening the bottle, disposing of the empty, your use of their ice bucket and glassware, and the cost of washing off your lipstick and fingerprints, there’s absolutely nothing in it for them.
BYOB can be very uncool, especially if the wine you bring is a brand on the winelist and/or costs less than the corkage fee. But under certain circumstances it is perfectly acceptable: just use some common sense and remember your manners.
- You’ll quickly get a sense of how a restaurant really feels about BYOB. An unusually high corkage fee (say over R50) is a pretty good indication that they discourage it. Also establish whether it’s OK to bring more than one bottle (depending on the number of guests etc). If you don’t like their attitude, find somewhere else.
Don’t BYOB just to save money.
- Honestly, it’ll just make you like look a cheapskate, and you’re probably not going to get the warmest welcome/best service. Bring your own because you have a special bottle for a special occasion – a bottle from your birth year to celebrate your birthday, for example, or a foreign wine bought on honeymoon to celebrate your wedding anniversary. Those are extreme examples; the point is that the wine should be unique or at least special in some way.
Order something from the winelist first.
- Even if it’s just a glass of the house wine while you study the menu to find the perfect match for your special wine, this shows good faith (and proves you’re not just a cheapskate).
Offer a glass to the sommelier, owner or chef.
- They’ll probably decline with thanks, or accept just a taste, but they’ll certainly appreciate the gesture – and maybe even reciprocate by doing what they can to make your special evening even more special.
Tip on the wine.
- It makes no difference to your waiter that you didn’t buy the wine off the winelist – he/she is doing exactly same amount of work (opening the bottle, bringing you an ice bucket, topping up your glasses, clearing them away…). So if you’re planning to leave a tip that’s about 10 to 15% of the total bill, add about 10 to 15% of what the restaurant charges for a good/equivalent bottle of wine (minus the corkage fee, if you feel that the two amounts together are overly generous).