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WINE Stewards’ Follies

How to decipher a restaurant wine list.
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What could be more pleasant than a fine wine with a meal? But what could be more confusing, disappointing, and
expensive than trying to order a wine in a restaurant? Even veteran restaurant-goers feel uneasy when ordering wine,
and the average diner is often panic-stricken when called on to pick the evening’s beverage. The chief culprit for
this anxiety is that most mysterious of all gourmet documents – the wine list.

Choosing a wine can be tricky, so the purposes of a wine list should be to offer a balanced selection and to guide
even the least informed patron through the maze of choices. But most lists presume that everyone is an oenophile.
Consider the poor novice, under scrutiny of guests and impatient waiter, nervously thumbing through pages of
unpronounceable foreign words and double-digit prices. Cabernet Sauvignon, $10.50? Piesporter Goldtropfchen
Spatlese, $15? All he wants is something nice that he can afford. To make matters worse, the descriplions – if given
at all – are too often more confusing than helpful. Terms like “soft,” “brilliant,” and “elegant” are nebulous and
rarely correct.

Even if the diner can decipher the list, he is still not guaranteed a glorious experience. Wine knowledge is useless
if the choices are not reasonable. Some lists read like a London auction catalog, while others carry nothing but
commercial trivialities such as Mateus, Lancers, and Lambrusco.

Another shortcoming is the inadequate selection of half-bottles. What if you order filet mignon and your dinner
companion has filet of sole? Radio commercials notwithstanding, Blue Nun will improve neither red nor white meat. No
single wine complements every dish. Half-bottles would be the answer, but few restaurants bother with them.

Once you have made your selection, vou are ready for the next intimidating experience, the wine service. The average
diner feels uneasy about this ritual because he is afraid of appearing unsophisticated should he not respond
confidently. In most instances, the person serving the wine is just as unsure of what to do and would probably
rather be home watching “Saturday Night Live.”

Once the bottle is presented and opened, the waiter will hand you the cork. This is a pretension that only occurs in
restaurants. Squeeze and sniff the cork if you desire, to make certain it’s not dry and crumbly, but the real test
comes when a small portion is poured for the host. This is the moment of truth that diners dread most. How does one
know if a wine is bad or not? No big mystery. Sour wine is no less mistakable than sour milk. A bottle which has
been mishandled or is too old will smell corky and musty, and it will taste acidic and vinegary. No expertise is
required to detect these faults. (But don’t miscontrue dryness as acidity. Also, some bitterness is normal in many
red wines, especially younger Bordeaux, when they’re first opened.) If you aren’t certain, ask the sommelier to try
it. Don’t be afraid to send a questionable bottle back, but be reasonable. A genuinely defective wine is a rare
occurrence in a reputable establishment. And don’t try to return the bottle if it’s merely an aesthetic
disappointment. Blame the grower or Mother Nature.

Since your wine is probably costing as much as your meal,you are within your rights tosee that the wine is served
properly. White wines should be chilled, and reds should beserved slightly cooler than room temperature. With all
wines, make certain the lead foil around the bottle top has been removed and all moldy matter wiped away. The
glasses should be filled no more than half-way. At most better restaurants, waiters are required to pour the wine
throughout the meal, but feel free to do it yourself. Many red wines need to stand unopened for a while before being
served, to give the bitterness a chance to dissipate, so make sure your red wine is uncorked immediately. If you
decide to splurge on a bottle of expensive red wine, ask to have it decanted. This procedure allows the wine to
“breathe” most effectively, and it also enables the clear liquid to be separated from the bitter sediment that
collects in the bottom of the bottle.

But the best service is to no avail if the wine you order is inferior. Restaurant wine-drinkers seem to have an
affinity for what I call “the three Ps” – Piesporter, Pommard, and Pouilly-Fuissé. The first is a sweet German
white that has ruined many a delicate seafood dinner. Pommard is a middleweight red Burgundy, never great, but
usually more costly than a superior though less pronounceable wine from the same region. And Pouilly-Fuissé – well,
volumes could be written about this second-rate white Burgundy, called “the American wine” by the French, who export
vast quantities to us at inflated prices.

With a little guidance, you can safely break away from this pattern. You just need to know something about the
quirks of the several varieties of wines found on most lists.



Red Burgundy. The key to ordering a red or white wine from this French region is to know the name of the
shipper, since few Burgundian growers bottle their own wines for export. If the sommelier suggests a bottle of, say,
Gevrey-Cham-bertin (a commune of Burgundy), ask for the name of the shipper before committing yourself. Most lists
don’t give this information. Some of the high-volume shippers, such as Cruse, Barton & Guestier, and Sichel, rarely
exceed mediocrity. Names to look for on Dallas wine lists include Louis Jadot, Moillard, Joseph Drouhin, Mommessin,
and Jaboulet-Vercherre. Burgundy enjoyed a string of good years for its red wines. Usually excellent are 1969, 1971,
and 1972; 1970, 1973, and 1974 are light but good. Avoid 1975. The 1976 Beaujolais is excellent.

While Burgundy. The world’s best dry whites are rising in price every day, so be prepared to pay dearly for
anything named Montrachet. Pouilly-Fuissé is probably the most sought-after of these wines. Perhaps its easy
drinkability is the reason, but the quality never justifies the price. For the same or less money, order Meursault,
Chassagne-Montrachet, or a grand cru Chablis. Better still, look for Macon-Villages, Beaujolais Blanc, or
Saint-Véran, all neighbors of Pouilly-Fuissé and often superior at half the price. Another good bet is a shipper’s
trademark blend. Jaboulet-Vercherre’s “Comtes de Chartogne” is consistently fine in red and white and rarely costs
more than $10. White Burgundies deteriorate with advancing age, so dismiss anything older than 1971. Everything
younger than that has been fine except for 1972.

Red Bordeaux. These are easier to select because most go under the name of the chateaux where they are made,
thus eliminating the shipper dilemma. Exalted titles such as Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Chateau Margaux decorate
the larger wine lists, but these whims can cost up to $250 a bottle. Excellent wines, still not cheap, can be found
among the lesser-classified growths, such as chateaux Giscours, Talbot, and Lascombes. Wines to avoid are regional
blends labeled merely “Saint-Emilion” or “Medoc.” Equally dull are commercial wines with misleading names, such as
Mouton-Cadet (a Rothschild in name only) and Pontet-Latour. Chateau bottling is only a few dollars away. The best
recent vintages were 1966 and 1970, but these are still a little young. More ready to drink are 1964, 1967, 1971,
and 1973.

Germany. “Wine for wine’s sake,” the adage goes, and indeed these light, fruity whites don’t accompany food
very well. If you must drink Piesporter, be sure it’s from the Goldtropfchen vineyard. Remember that the word
Auslese on a label indicates a sweet wine; Spatlese, less sweet; and Kabinett, the driest. Don’t order Liebfraumilch
unless you’re planning to dine on Gilligan’s Island. Accept only 1975 and 1976 vintages of German wines. The latter
are very sweet; the former are better with meals.

California. This section of the wine list reads like an agricultural chart: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay,

and Chenin Blanc are simply names of grape varieties. Lists rarely give the names of wineries, and a bit of prior
knowledge is essential here to distinguish between the bulk producers (such as Almaden, Paul Masson, and Inglenook)
and the true specialists (Robert Mondavi, Heitz, and Chateau Montelena, for example). Vintage year quality varies
according to type of grape. If you have a choice, pick the younger whites and look for 1974 in Cabernet Sauvignon.



Listed below are some of the restaurants that are distinctive in their approach to wine service and selection:



Old Warsaw. A tradition of excellence still alive today. Extensive list – some real jewels – and the most
complete wine service in town.



Brennan’s. Skip the menu list and ask for the special book. Awesome selection of old Bordeaux, reasonably
priced, though some listed are no longer in the cellar.

Papillon. Probably more fine bottles sold here than at any gourmet restaurant in town. Fine list, intelligent
service.

Arthur’s. Brilliant list, California wines exclusively. Some, like the famous Chalone Chardonnay, are not
available elsewhere.

The Grape. A Dallas institution. The superb list is revised every two weeks. The place to go for a
wine-oriented dinner.

La Cave. Actually a retail wine shop that offers food and setting to accompany your purchase, although the
menu is limited to light fare. An excellent place to enjoy a good wine at a reasonable price: only $1.50 corkage fee
in addition to the normal retail price.

Jennivine. A pretender in the wine bar category. The list is a hodge-podge of duplications and undrinkable
wholesale close-outs. Too bad, because the staff is sincere and the atmosphere seductive.

Pyramid Room. A well-organized selection, but not up to the restaurant’s reputation. Silvano is still
Dallas’s star sommelier.

Da Vinci. If you can ignore the Saturday-night fever in this flashy disco, you’ll find one of the most
concise, intelligent lists in town.

The major rub between consumer and restaurateur is the astonishingly high price of wine. You can expect to pay
$15-$20 for a good Burgundy, a lesser-classified-growth Bordeaux, or a better wine from one of the smaller
California vintners. Anyone who has shopped retail stores must flinch when he is required to pay double or triple
the shelf cost for wine at a restaurant. One merchant flatly admits that he never orders wine in a restaurant. “I
know what that stuff really costs, and those guys are making out like bandits.”

In all fairness, restaurants are plaguedby problems, too. Keeping a list up todate is exasperating in view of the
constantly changing prices and availability ofwines. “I can’t re-write my list every timea price changes or my
supplier runs out ofan item,” a local sommelier complains.”My boss would rather we didn’t even offer a wine
selection. It’s such a hassle tostock, serve, and store that he would justas soon sell mixed drinks. More profit
inthat, anyway.”