Archive for October, 2010



Wine lists make people nervous, especially new-comers to the world of wine. Be assured everyone, even those for whom wine is a constant companion, is intimidated by the possibilities of making a selection from an unfamiliar list. It’s impossible for anyone, including masters of wines (dare I make such a challenging statement?) to be familiar with every label from every wine-region around the world. A leather-bound tome chock-full of choices is sure to cause an uncomfortable jolt, even to sophisticated enophiles. A difficult burden lies on the head of the individual at the table who is called on to make the choice, except chances are others at the table are relieved to be free of the task. “Nah, go ahead. Anything you pick is okay,”  they’d say. And generally speaking most selections will be perfectly suitable.
It’s good to take control sometimes, particularly in the company of  a big spender with deep pockets who always picks the foie gras supplement on the menu and who equates high price with quality. Equally troublesome is the cheapskate. Whoever the burden falls on whether the most initiated, most willing or conscripted, remember the  moderation is the key word. To paraphrase Shakespeare, neither a miser nor spendthrift be. Be considerate of other people’s wallets. Target middle-priced wines, not the cheapest on the list or the most expensive. If the restaurant is ethnic, it’s a good idea to pick wines of the region.

Complications arise when two or more people order different appetizers and diverse main courses. The conventional wisdom is “red with meat and white with poultry or fish,” but that doesn’t help under those circumstances. And then, rules are meant to be broken.  Particular preferences, allergies or prejudices compound the issue. When making a choice gets out of hand, a simple solution is to  order wine by the glass or a bottle each of a red and a white wine.

Here are some helpful tips:

1. Rely on the sommelier for assistance in choosing a wine. Perhaps the most important relationship in a restaurant is the one between customer and sommelier who each preside over two separate, jealously guarded domains. Today’s increasingly complex menu preparations require an avid partnership between the master of the kitchen and the keeper of the wine cellar. The first order of business for the latter is to develop a sympathetic understanding of the chef’s culinary creations. Unfortunately, it is rare to find professionals in kitchen and dining room who overcome their territorial turfs and often-oversized egos. The sommelier theoretically should play a supporting role to the chef, becoming intimately involved with the philosophy and tastes of what comes through the kitchen’s swinging doors. Yet the best interests of customers are served when the two work in harmony to determine the best match between wine and food.
What assistance should restaurant patrons expect from sommeliers without assuming every customer is a wine neophyte? Suggestions for a satisfactory wine and food pairing. Help deciphering a wine list loaded with unfamiliar labels and varietals from wine regions around the world. (Ah, for the simpler days of red- sauced Italian food and Chianti poured from straw-covered bottles.)

In the absence of a sommelier, realize there are friendly varietals. A well-crafted  Sauvignon blanc can display a range of flavors that generally makes if a crowd-pleaser. Merlot is currently at the head of the pack in the red wine category and while it was often the axiom that Cabernet sauvignons were difficult to drink young, new techniques of vinification make them more accessible. Silky Pinot noirs are a great choice for four disparate dinners. Spicy, perky red Zinfandels (not the white kind that are too sweet to go with food) or well-crafted, un-oaked  Chardonnays fit the bill. Argentinean Malbecs are quite the current rage as an excellent match with hearty foods.

2. I like to think of each new wine as a blind date.  While you might not want to make it  permanent, a relationship with a new varietal or label need only last for an evening. Conversely, it might be love at first sight, something worthwhile going out with it  again.

3. If a waiter breathes down your neck, politely insist on a few minutes. Don’t be intimidated by a wait staff person who wants to speed things up by offering some suggestions. Note that you probably know more than the average waiter does.

4.Remember there is only one reason to send back a bottle of wine. It has to be spoiled. Sometimes aromas are funky and way off.  Wait a few minutes. If the bad odors persist, smelling like wet sponge or something equally unpalatable, politely but firmly ask for an exchange.

5. Lastly, recognize wine enhances a dining experience and makes a meal more festive and congenial. Remember ordering a bottle of wine isn’t the most crucial decision of one’s life. It’s not as serious as getting married, buying a car, or declaring war on Saddam Hussein.




Evita Peron made Argentina famous, but she’s a figure from the past. The country has something new to vaunt. Malbec, once an obscure grape used primarily for blending in French wines, now  is vinified by itself and stands proudly on its own. Malbecs are hearty wines when flying solo, great to partner with steaks, lamb, pizza, and barbeque. They are getting a lot of press and publicity at the moment, so next time you’re looking for a robust red, reach out for Malbec.

Look for Malbecs, Cabernets, and Pinot Noirs wines from the Mendoza region. Patagonia, famous for its rugged landscape, is an up-and-coming wine region producing fine Malbecs made by adventuresome winemakers.  These are the world’s most southerly wine regions, with an Arctic influenced climate whose wines offer vivid taste and attractive purple-black hues. Malbec is reputed to have more antioxidants  than other reds. (I’m dubious about antioxidant claims, since it seems you’d have to drink bottles of wine every day to reap the benefits. Then think about your liver.)

Back to other virtues of Malbec. A combination of taste and value are an unbeatable combination. Land in Argentina is, at the moment, cheaper than many other wine regions. Labor costs follow the same path. Ergo there’s a lot of bang for the buck from a bottle of Malbec from Argentina. There are some with $100 price tags, but generally, $20 or a bit less can buy excellent quality.