Sensational Living®

December 2004
© 2004 by Bret S. Beall


Over the years, I have been asked about my beverage choice many, many times, because I have dined out many, many times. Most of the time, almost immediately upon being seated, I am asked, "May I get you something to drink, sir?" At one level, it is meant to provide attentive service, to enhance comfort, and to fill a perceived need for an alcoholic beverage. On a more cynical level, it is also meant to bump up the total bill.

Because many will be dining out more often during this holiday season, I wanted to provide some general guidelines for ordering alcoholic beverages in restaurants. Please remember that these are guidelines, not specific answers. There are no specific answers (in most cases) because 1) Taste is subjective, and 2) Dining situations vary.

Let's start with your being seated at your table. As soon as your server arrives at your table, s/he will almost certainly greet you and ask if you would like a drink. You can answer any way that you wish, but I always explain that I need to view the menu first before deciding what wine(s) to enjoy. I take this approach for three reasons. First, I really do want to pick a wine (or wines) that will go well with my food. Secondly, I'm usually trying to be economical, so I don't want to over-indulge. Thirdly, I may have to drive or work after dining, so I don't want to be impaired. Selecting a beverage to accompany your meal is about enhancing your experience, not about an alcoholic buzz.

I specifically mentioned wine rather than a cocktail for a very specific reason: hard liquor can negatively impact one's palate and taste buds. Liquor has a higher alcohol content than wine, and can actually numb one's taste buds. Furthermore, certain cocktails are sweet; the sugar can coat the tongue and soft palate, further impairing one's ability to taste. While these negative effects are temporary, I don't want to risk reducing my dining experience when I could enhance it with the properly selected wine.

As a side note, I don't want to give you the impression that food can only be paired with wine. I have been to beer dinners that were exquisite. I have been to scotch tastings where the foods were designed to "work" with the liquor. I have had tea as my dining beverage many times. And, if I'm just having "fun food," I'll break my own rules and have a cocktail of some sort. The goal is to select your beverages with purpose and intention. Go for it!

So, you have the beverage of your choice arriving while you look through the menu; I have my water, always "still" (=tap; I do not need to spend $5 for a bottle of San Pellegrino or similar). You've selected an appetizer and an entrée. What wine do you order? There are several approaches that we can take.

1. You can memorize some of the general qualities of each varietal offered by various experts. In my experience, this is helpful only to a certain extent. First, there are so many varietals, even learning their basic characteristics can be intimidating. Secondly, each varietal can be made into wines of rather different styles and flavors. Thirdly, without knowing the specifics of how each dish you've ordered has been prepared, it is difficult to know which characteristic of which varietal will work with the food.

2. You can find a wine writer/reviewer whose palate you respect. You can learn whether you respect his/her palate by actually sampling the wines they recommend on your own, seeing if you agree with their assessments, and keeping track of your experiments. If they make recommendations of particular dishes that would accompany particular wines, keep that in mind. Of course, the major downside of this is that the information again becomes encyclopedic, which can diminish the pleasure of a dining experience. Also, wine characteristics can vary from vintage to vintage (year to year).

3. You can ask your server (or sommelier, if one is present) for guidance. This is the easiest, and often most successful approach. Your server/sommelier should be familiar not only with the menu preparations, but also with wine qualities. S/he should be able to make educated suggestions. In fact, the restaurant may even have specific guidelines regarding which of their wines pair best with their various dishes.

I have accumulated enough experience with wines (and foods) to usually get by with option #1. This comes in handy when the staff are less than knowledgeable about food and wine pairings within their restaurant. I tend to like zinfandel, carignane, nebbiolo nero d'avola and barolo as general wines with hearty foods. I prefer sauvignan blanc and California chardonnays with lighter fare. I also like to just sip these particular varietals on their own before and after their "assigned" course. But, your palate has to be the judge. Pick what you like (but, as I've written elsewhere, consider trying something new).

If I'm dining in a restaurant where the chef is known to be especially "creative," I try to rely on staff recommendations. In general, staff are eager to help, and will make excellent suggestions. I begin with an assumption of trust and respect for the staff, knowing that they want me to have a great dining experience in order to encourage both return business and a good tip. However, sometimes you encounter some egregious behavior. I recall one restaurant in San Francisco that had received some rave reviews. I was rather unfamiliar with how the foods would be seasoned, so I asked for guidance from the sommelier. As soon as I heard his suggestion to accompany the first course, I knew I was on my own. I use a simple rule of thumb (and a bit of instinct) regarding whether or not to accept a staff member's recommendation. Does s/he give you a specific reason for selecting a particular wine to pair with a particular food dish? If not, let that be a warning flag; you know what a stickler I am for evidence-based decisions, rather than accepting suggestions made by fiat. When a wine is mentioned, where does it fall in the price list? If it is in the low or mid range, accept the suggestion; if it is the most expensive wine, ignore it. This isn't a perfect system, but it is highly improbable that the food will be designed to pair with the most expensive wine available. Use your own instinct, as I do, when confronted with the most expensive choice. If money is no option, feel free to accept the suggestion and test it.

Much of my discussion so far has been about how well a beverage pairs with food. This alludes to the so-called "perfect pairing," a situation where the beverage works so well with the food that it creates a flavor epiphany. Having experienced this a number of times in my life, it is a worthy goal. When the flavors of a wine intermingle with the flavors of a food seamlessly and enticingly, enhancing both food and wine, memories of joy are created. And who doesn't want such joy? Sometimes, though, the basic pleasure of dining can be ruined by too much emphasis on perfection.

When I entertain at home, I have given up the effort of "perfect pairing." I pick wines that I think will go well with each course (I allow three to four glasses per person per evening, as a guideline for calculating the bottles needed), and hope for the best. It usually works, but sometimes it doesn't. But we always have a good time, and often I've gone outside my comfort zone, out of my semi-rut, and selected something new and potentially exciting. So enjoy perfect pairings when you encounter them, but don't become obsessive.

So far I've avoided discussing whether to order a bottle, or to order wine by the glass. Let's look at the facts. A single 750ml bottle of wine contains about 5 glasses of wine. Two people can easily share a bottle with dinner. A single bottle is usually more affordable than five individual glasses, so it's a win on purely economic grounds. But what about flavor? I've already discussed pairings, and if you are dealing with two people, each with theoretically four different dishes (two appetizers and two entrees), the probability of one wine working with all four dishes is low. So, make your own decision on cost or flavor, but I'll take flavor every time.

Of course, you have fewer options if you choose to dine at a BYOB establishment. Sometimes, this is a great deal. For instance, if I'm going to a Chinese or southeast Asian restaurant, I will choose an Alsatian gewürztraminer (which goes particularly well with spices, and I remember one, from Schlumberger, that had enough residual sugar to work exceptionally with the slightly sweet dipping sauces in a Vietnamese restaurant … but it wasn't very pleasant to just sip) or (and here's a specific recommendation) Hop Kiln's Thousand Flowers (a blend of chardonnay, gewurz and riesling that handles both spice and sweetness well, and is pleasant to sip). However, the number of people dining together can affect the number of bottles needed, allowing for some variety. Also, if I'm unfamiliar with a restaurant's cuisine, I'll usually pick one of my favorite varietals (mentioned above) and take my chances. Be aware of the restaurant's corkage policy. If you decide to bring a bottle to a restaurant that serves alcohol, be prepared for two things: 1) the corkage fee could top $25, and 2) unless the bottle you are asking them to open is quite the special wine (versus everyday alcohol or a low end bottle), you will identify yourself as a cheapskate, and any rapport you might have had with your server will be diminished (cheap wine = low/no tip).

I can now segue into discussing wine and service snobbery (or arrogance). Snobbery can occur on the part of both the diner and the restaurant staff. Let's start with your role as a diner. Please … do NOT try to impress your server with your knowledge of wine. No one cares. If you have an intellectual/culinary interest in wine, engage your server in a relevant peer-to-peer discussion, but don't regale him or her with tales of wines past. It is boorish.

Service snobbery/arrogance is unforgivable. Does the server/sommelier intimidate you? Is this actually something s/he is doing, or is it your own insecurity? If it is the server, take a deep breath, and enjoy your meal. Have confidence in your own knowledge. I recently visited a winery where all of the wines were inferior, but one in particular was overwhelmingly yeasty. When I mentioned this to the pourer, she informed me that that is the case with all dry white wine … not! Yeastiness is the fault of the winemaker, so don't accept it (but one doesn't have to be rude about it).

Other factors of which you need to be aware wine sediment, oxidation and corking. Wines are "living" entities, and their chemistry continues to change throughout their lives. If you happen to get the last pour from a bottle, you may get sediment, which is musty and granular. If the cork was contaminated (by fungal spores) prior to being inserted into a bottle, that contamination impacts the wine during aging, affecting the flavor unfavorably and resulting in the wine being "corked." If a wine is held too long (either open or with the cork intact), it can become oxidized; the causes of oxidation are many, but the flavor is unmistakably inferior, and the overly-gold color is fairly obvious. If you encounter any of these problems, mention it/them to your server. If the server doesn't replace your glass, ask for the manager; you should not have to tolerate a musty, corked or oxidized glass of wine.

I also have observed what seems a disconcerting trend, when a wine with sweetness is described as "fruity." I encountered this recently in Oregon; I had read an article about a particularly complex white blend, and had the opportunity to try it my first night at one of Portland's top restaurants. My traveling companion and I were shocked to find an almost cloyingly sweet (yet complex) wine; neither the article I had read nor the restaurant's wine list mentioned any residual sugar in the wine, and when we mentioned it to the server, he said that it was "fruity," but that there was no residual sugar. Methinks he was wrong (but he graciously replaced the glasses with two wines to our liking; FYI, just because you don't like a wine, you are NOT entitled to having it replaced, hence my calling the server "gracious"). Unfortunately, I have also been to a number of wine tastings in the last six months where wine reps avoid any reference to "sweetness," and instead call it "fruitiness." "Fruitiness" is something quite different from "sweetness," involving different types of flavors. I actually asked one wine rep about this, and she said, "I think 'fruitiness' sounds better than 'sweetness'." I told her that was misrepresentation.

What is the bottom line? You are in charge of your dining experience. Begin with the assumption that all parties involved want you to have a great experience. Respect your server as a member of your dining "team." Take responsibility for educating yourself on the basic characteristics of the most common varietals, and some of the foods they "tend" to pair well with. Ask for help if you need it. Don't display wine arrogance (I have friends who insist I know a LOT about wine; I assure them I know a LOT about what I do NOT know!). If any sort of problem occurs, address it with respect, kindness, consideration and a positive attitude. Most importantly, be mindful of your dining experience. Don't shovel your food and quaff your wine. Stop. Proceed slowly. Chew. Taste. Sip. Think. Repeat.

Be responsible as your celebrate throughout the holiday season and into the new year!

As you might expect from me, these are guidelines that you can apply to all aspects of your life. If you need some help with these guidelines, you know how to reach me: 773.508.9208 or email me. If you have your own interesting food and beverage tales, please share them with me! I love a good story!