It’s Thursday night and you are at happy hour with friends. After a few drinks, you are happy… and now hungry. You decide to go to dinner. You find a restaurant, check in, are seated and greeted by a friendly waiter.
After he describes some food specials you don’t care about and a brief anecdote from his life you also don’t care about, he finally decides to leave. However, as he’s leaving, almost like an afterthought, he places a wine list delicately in the middle of table – in ‘No Man’s Land.’ It’s a thick, bulky, leather beast. Everybody notices it, but nobody touches it. It’s like a childhood game – if you touch it, “you’re it!”
Well, one day, my friend, you’ll have to grow up. One day you will have to tame that beast. Below are some nuggets of wisdom that will help you order like a boss.
1. Know the Triple Mark-up Rule
Wine is priced at a 300% mark up from its retail value. This should help you find your price range. If you usually buy wines between $10 - $15 at the store, then there is no reason you should be spending above $45 for a bottle. Even if most wines on the list are in the $60 - $100 range, don’t get pulled into the ‘anchoring effect.’ Hold your ground. It’s not being cheap. It’s being intelligent and confident.
2. Know Basic Wine Economics
What is the likelihood of walking into a grocery store in Paris, Madrid or Rome and finding a California Cabernet Sauvignon? Nearly ZERO. Now flip that. What is the likelihood of walking into a grocery store in the US and finding a wine from France, Spain, or Italy? Nearly 100%. Economics is real, folks. France, Spain, Italy (as well as Australia, Argentina, Chile, and South Africa) are massive exporters of wine. Cheaper land and years of industrialization have allowed for economies of scale, which means that a bottle from one of these countries probably cost a lot less to get onto the wine list. Why does this matter? PRICE DOES NOT DICTATE QUALITY. If you see a $45 Côtes du Rhône vs a $60 Oregon Pinot Noir, think about this. I’m not at all advocating for imported wines. There are plenty of factors that should go into making a wine purchase decision beyond price (keep reading). However, it’s important to know why things are the way they are.
3. Theme Matters
Creating a wine list is a subjective art. There is a lot of pride and thought that goes into it – usually by the owner of the restaurant or a passionate sommelier (have you seen the documentary ‘Somm’? Let’s just say I wish my banker was as passionate about my investments). If you are in an Italian restaurant and see that most wines are from Italy, then you should go Italian. If you are in an Italian restaurant and see that most wines are American, then go domestic. This is a clear message. The person that created the wine list wants to share his experience and passion with you. Do not go for that random bottle from a different country. The reason why it is there is to satisfy drinkers who only drink certain wines. Pick your price point, pick you meal, pick the right country, and then don’t be afraid to ask.
4. Make Friends with Blends.
Think about Aristotle’s quote: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This is the whole concept behind wine blends. Blending is a useful way for vintners to add complexity and balance to wine cheaply (while overshadowing any faults). I like to think it like a delicious burger. There is a paddy, bun, bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, etc. Each component is there to complement the other – bacon adds smoke and crunch to the meat, cheese adds texture, etc. Each of these components can be delicious on its own, but when combined in a burger, you are getting something far more complex, tasty and textured. It’s like Captain Planet. Burger components are like varietals (grapes) in a wine blend. Each grape has its own flavor and texture to add. This means that when you are ordering for a group, there’s something for everyone to enjoy, whether it be spice, fruit, body, tannin, etc. Blends are also typically cheaper to produce and therefore cheaper to buy. If in a crowd, make friends with blends.
5. The Bottom Is Not the Bottom
“I’m not going to buy the cheapest wine, because I’m sure it’s terrible and I don’t want to look like a cheapskate.” How many times have you looked at a wine list and told yourself these words? That’s called ‘rationale’ and we all have it. The problem is restauranteurs also have ‘rationale’ and it’s to your detriment. A lot of restaurants will mark up their cheapest bottle aggressively (gotta make those margins somewhere), meaning that the cheapest wine on the list is not actually the cheapest bottle. So, what should this mean for you? Well, nothing really. It should just re-enforce the sentiment that price does not dictate quality and that you should feel confident using the criteria above without fear of judgement. If the cheapest bottle is ticking all the boxes - you go girl! You pound that puppy!
Still don’t believe that it can be this easy? Let’s put it into practice. Below is a real wine list from a real restaurant. Let’s use the exact scenario above. You know very little about wine, but you have all agreed that you want a bottle of red with dinner. Your price limit in the grocery store is typically around $15 so you create a limit of $45. By following the steps above, we have been able to eliminate 80% of the options. Check it out:
Nice. Now let’s just go with the cheapest option left on the list (because it ticks all the boxes in our criteria) - “Château Les Arromans, Bordeaux, 2015.” Done.
So, was this a wise choice? Let’s see what Wine Enthusiast has to say:
86 points. Nailed it. You’re welcome.
(Note: I know this review is for the 2014 vintage, but wine blends typically don’t change too much year to year, as blending allows you to retain consistency).
So, there you go. Choosing wine doesn’t have to be intimidating. With just a few basic tricks, you can turn this beast into a cuddly kitten. Peace of mind, peace of wallet, piece of cake.
NOTE (so I don’t get shamed by the naysayers): The “Chinon, Domaine de la Colline, Loire, 2015” on this list is a single varietal Cabernet Franc. As someone with more knowledge, I am very aware of this. However, for the sake of this example, I wanted to keep things realistic, as a beginner would not be able to determine this simply by looking at the list. Hence the reason I kept it as an option.