How to Look Slick Choosing Wine From a List

At Daniel Boulud’s db Bistro Moderne, 27-year-old Caleb Ganzer brings a fresh face to the sommelier world. There, Ganzer manages the restaurant’s vast wine list, and spends his evenings helping customers pick vintages. Now, this handsome young sommelier shares some tips on reading a wine list with us, so the next time you are on a date or want to impress someone with your knowledge of reds from Italy or white wine made in New York, you can look like an expert every time. 

Utilize the sommelier:“If the restaurant has a sommelier, use them. This may seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes diners forget there’s a dedicated staff member for wine recommendations. By asking to speak with the sommelier, you come across as a savvy diner, and simultaneously shift the ordering pressure away from yourself.

Once you’ve engaged the sommelier, all you have to do is tell him or her what everyone is eating, set a budget range, and say ‘Surprise us!’ Sommeliers, like chefs, thrive on these requests and will try to blow you away. It’s exciting and humbling to be given that level of trust, and they’ll deliver with a wine that will get the table talking. You’ll look like a real pro for putting it together.”

Process of elimination:  “Okay, so not all restaurants have sommeliers. So, how do you navigate a wine list full of unknown grapes, regions and steep prices? Start by narrowing the field. Are you looking for a white or a red? A ‘New World’ [aka the Americas] or ‘Old World’ [aka European] wine? Want to try a lesser-known varietal, or something everyone at table is familiar with? Once you’ve tapered down the selections, it’s more than okay to choose the winning bottle based on price point. Don’t choose the least expensive bottle on the list, as that’s the one with the highest markup, but the second or third cheapest should guarantee you a good bottle, with good value.”

Three is key:If you can identify three key tasting notes you enjoy in a wine, you’re good to go. For example, dry, red, and earthy; or white, funky, and mineral. Just mention these adjectives to your sommelier or waiter, and let them guide you to a wine. They should be able to match these buzzwords to a bottle that suits your palate.”

Go in with some Go-tos:“Certain wine regions are reliable for great wines, at great prices. Memorize a few of these ‘value regions’, so that you always have options up your sleeve. For example, in France try Alsace for whites and Beaujolais for reds. In Italy, Alto Adige for whites, and Campania for reds. In America, New York for whites, and Oregon for reds.”

Make it personal:“There’s nothing wrong with picking a wine based solely on personal preference or prior experience. Does the bottle from Corsica remind you of your honeymoon? The bottle from Germany of your time studying abroad? Or the one from Greece of a summer spent island hopping? Whatever you choose, it’s sure to be unique, and serves as a great conversation-starter to be shared during the meal.”

Ganzer’s go-to wine:“Red Burgundy, as a rule of thumb, is great way to pull a wide range of flavors together. The delicacy of the tannins of red Burgundy seldom overpowers subtle fish dishes, and the acidity and earthy flavors are usually enough for even the richest meat courses. I’ve also had a lot of success recently with red Mediterranean wines.”

Words to look out for:  With tasting notes, some classic varietals exhibit certain descriptions. Ganzer recommends if you want something red, dry, and earthy, try a Carigna and Sangiovese, or look toward regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, Tuscany, and Rioja. For funky, mineral-filled whites, he said you could go for Grenache Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Savagnin. Or, try vino from the central coast of California, Loire, Roussillon, Jura, and Sardinia.

Now, go test out your newfound knowledge and wow your dining companions.

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