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Reader, I know what panic looks like.
It's the look in someone's eyes when he is presented with a multipage wine list in a nice restaurant on a special occasion. The game is suddenly afoot: Can he figure out how to navigate all the selections and not look stupid when he picks a bottle-and not spend his entire savings in the process?
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Valentine's Day is one of the year's biggest nights to dine out, and it's coming up fast. That means an evening of white tablecloths, lit candles, and leather-bound tomes that list 63 different labels of red Bordeaux (the kind of list it would take you all night to read, let alone choose from). Hey, is that sommelier giving you a funny look?
But fear not! I've got 10 ways to help you break the wine list code. These are the tips that will ensure you get value and pleasure out of any selection, and look brainy in the process.
1. Engage the Staff. Most wine professionals create lists as labors of love. "There's encoded DNA in all sommeliers. If you engage them, they tell their secrets," says Bobby Stuckey, a Master Sommelier who now plies his trade at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado. His list lets you know what he's excited about-and it's usually not something super-famous and expensive, because that's less fun for him and also makes him irrelevant.
2. Own Your Preferences. To get the conversation started, let the sommelier know what styles of wine you like. "There's great wine made everywhere these days," advises Belinda Chang, the wine director at the Monkey Bar in New York City. "If we know you like Pinot Noir, which can be pricey, we can steer you to something with a similar taste profile."
3. Set a Price Limit. In tandem with Rule #2, I always tell restaurant staffers how much I want to spend. You may think it's tacky, but you've got to get over it. Most high-end lists can go from $30 bottles to collectible $500 ones, and being shy about your intentions is only going to get you in trouble. Creating parameters helps the staff do their job, which is to help you.
4. Put Food First. Frequently one is presented with a wine list before a menu has even shown up. I like to have an idea about the food I'm going to be ordering first. It would be a shame to order a tannic Australian Shiraz and then decide five minutes later on raw oysters; what a terrible combination! A better pairing for the oysters would be Bodega Colomé Torrontés Mendoza 2009 ($15 retail), a dry white from Argentina with lychee and peach character.
5. Order by the Half-Bottle or Glass. A spirit of experimentation should always rule, and smaller quantities of wine help you try new things. By-the-glass programs sometimes get a bad rap because the markup is high, but they can be a good way to sample individual selections. Half-bottles are somewhat rarer, but they're my favorite way to give a wine a test-drive, since they hold about three glasses of wine. And halfsies are generally offered by the world's more serious wineries. For instance: Joseph Phelps Insignia Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($85/375ml), the perfect dose of inky, intense Cab.
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6. Do Some Research. There's no reason for you to be surprised by a restaurant wine list in this day and age. "Check out their list online," recommends Chang. "Or call the restaurant and have them send it to you." Calling ahead alerts staff to be extra-nice to you on your special occasion, too.
7. Seek Outliers. "Always look for the one anomaly," advises Alpana Singh, who was until recently the wine director for Chicago's Lettuce Entertain You group, including Everest. If a list has all the classic geographic sections-Burgundy, Napa, Tuscany-but you also spy something that doesn't fit (like, say, the Finger Lakes), you should pounce. That means the folks who put the selection together are probably passionate about the particular area. So take a chance. You might end up with something like the silky and sophisticated Breggo Cellars Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir ($55), from Anderson Valley in California's Mendocino County.
8. Head South. Singh is a big fan of the southern parts of all the mega-wine-producing countries that border the Mediterranean, namely Spain, France, and Italy. "The southern regions are less tony, with more values and warm weather that produces the ripe fruit flavors that most people like," she says, referring to places like Provence and Sicily. Look for Hecht & Bannier Faugères 2008 ($34), a blend from France's Languedoc region that has a robust, long-finishing blackberry burst that needs to be accompanied by hearty food such as venison chops, country pâté, and beef bourguignonne.
9. Reach for Second Labels. "Just like in fashion, producers have high-end couture brands and more accessible ones," says Chang. Winemaker Aubert de Villaine makes what are perhaps the world's most expensive, sought-after wines at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, but he has a value label, too-"his H&M," as Chang puts it. Aubert De Villaine Bouzeron 2008 ($23) is a dry and spicy white made from the Aligoté grape.
10. Go for Off Vintages. If you've heard about a vintage being great, that's your cue to change it up; famed years will be expensive and offer less value. "Look for great producers in difficult vintages," says Stuckey. "The best wineries can pull it off." Château Lagrange 2008 ($45) is a tip-top Bordeaux, at once weighty and supple, from a so-so year. They pulled it off despite the pressure-and on Valentine's Day, so can you.
What's been the best special-occasion wine you've ordered in a restaurant? Share it with me on Twitter, @LoosLips, or let us know on Epicurious' Facebook page or Twitter feed: @epicurious.
Prices and availability subject to change.
Ted Loos, a former editor of Wine Spectator, has written about wine for Bon Appétit, Decanter, Town & Country, and many other publications. He also covers design and the arts for The New York Times, Vogue, and Architectural Digest, among others. Follow him on Twitter: @LoosLips
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