You've scrubbed behind your ears. You've combed your hair. You've donned a recently laundered shirt. Now here you are, staring into the eyes of the stranger with whom you've agreed to endure the next 90 minutes of "small talk." For better or for worse, you're on a first date.
Unlike rock climbing, the violin, and just about every other form of human endeavor, no amount of practice makes this social ritual any less awkward. You'll need a bit of liquid fortification (cue the wine list) to ease yourself through those first excruciating minutes of sobriety. There's one catch, of course: You're going to be judged, and possibly harshly, by what you order.
Under such conditions, the first consideration shouldn't be what to drink but rather how to drink it. In other words, do you order by the glass or commit to a whole bottle?
This is a slippery act of cost-benefit analysis, one that leaves only a few moments in which to take stock of your companion and execute a snap decision. Sure, going BTG ("by the glass") might initially seem like the clear "low-risk" strategy. But the sad reality is that the vast majority of BTG selections are the least inspiring offerings, and the mark-ups tend to be particularly high. If you wind up enjoying yourself and decide to order another round, the cost of four glasses could easily equal (or top) that of a bottle.
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So unless your first impressions clearly dictate otherwise, we advise you to opt for that bottle. Don't worry too much about pairing it with your meal. You'll probably be too busy trying to sound interesting to enjoy that arugula salad anyway. Instead, set the appropriate tone-coy? aggressive? cautious? aloof?-by tailoring your tipple to the specifics of the date itself. After all, like some multi-headed hydra assembled of our deepest romantic insecurities, no first date is ever the same as the last. Each scenario requires a different drinking strategy, hence this handy guide. At the very least, you'll enjoy your glass, if not your companion.
The Blind Internet Date: There's no shame in using the interwebs to cast a wide romantic net, but there can be a vast gulf between the virtual and the real. In case you'll need to grab the check and run, get something fresh and easily knocked down. Pétillant naturel-an increasingly popular category of effervescent sparkler-provides the ideal exit strategy. Unlike your wasted evening, you won't regret a bottle of Pierre Bornard "Tant-Mieux" Pétillant-Naturel, a refreshingly off-dry wash of cinnamon and spice.
The One You Want to Impress: It's an indelible cliché, but nothing impresses like bubbles, and no bubbly compares to bona fide Champagne. But anyone with a black card can order Cristal. Instead, display your discernment with a rare estate-bottled "grower Champagne," produced by small farmers, like the NV Egly-Ouriet Brut "Tradition" Grand Cru. If Dom Pérignon is an impersonal suite at the Hyatt, this is a weekend escape at a quaint B&B.
The One You Can't Impress: Give yourself a break and drink whatever you please. Heck, order a beer if it makes you happy.
The Sudden Nightmare: Things have taken a turn for the worse, and your date has spent the last hour rambling about Scientology. Nothing drowns out the chatter like a big, robust Cabernet. And for the sake of novelty (since your date isn't offering much in that department), why not bypass Napa and try an example from Washington State, such as the 2011 Januik Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? Think of it as liquid earplugs.
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The One (for One Night, at Least): When you "get that feeling," you need a wine that's deep, smooth, and sultry. Consider Amarone, a northern Italian classic. All dark cherries, chocolate, and sweat, the 2005 Le Ragose Amarone della Valpolicella is the vinous equivalent of a Marvin Gaye song.
The Co-Worker: So you've dropped your company's HR handbook in the shredder and asked out that cutie from Accounts Payable. You want a cautious pick, but one that retains a discreet transgressive thrill. German Riesling to the rescue! Low in alcohol (i.e., less risk of having to hide in your cubicle the next morning), 2011 Fritz Haag Riesling Estate Feinherb finishes with a subtle but electric kiss of sweetness. With luck, so will your date.
The One You Met in Line at the Farmer's Market: Show your date your sustainable side by sharing a bottle of "natural" wine. Organic, unfiltered, and bottled without any added sulfur, the 2011 Thierry Puzelat "KO in Cot we Trust" is the ideal accompaniment to that free-range, antibiotic-free "roast chicken for two" from the cooperative farm upstate.
The One You Reconnected with on Facebook: You've improved since high school, and so has your date (at least according to the most recently updated profile pics). Similarly, Lambrusco-the sparkling Italian red from Italy's Emiglia-Romagna region-has outgrown the plonk-ishly sweet style you wish you could remember from prom night. Acquaint yourself with the wine's mature dry incarnation with a bottle of the 2010 Camillo Donati Lambrusco. It's all grown-up, and so are you.
The One You Asked Out on the Subway Who Randomly Said Yes: You're clearly not threatened by a little spontaneity. Close your eyes, point to the wine list, and order whatever your finger happens to land upon. And hope it lands on a fresh and snappy red from France's Beaujolais region, like the 2011 Terres Dorées Beajolaus "L'Ancien," whose spirit of youthful insouciance you're both bound to appreciate.
The One You're With to Get Over Someone Else: You're probably inclined to order a whiskey, neat, to ease the pain. But an aged sherry, such as the Valdespino Jerez Amontillado "Tio Diego," offers true solace. With an average of more than 14 years of aging, the wine has acquired a consolatory wisdom that puts things into perspective. Time, after all, heals all wounds.
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