Friday, April 8, 2011

Some Wine 'Rules' Are Made to Be Broken


As wine drinkers have grown more discerning, not to mention diverse, certain "rules" about ordering wine in restaurants may no longer apply.

For example, a man is no longer considered the automatic recipient of a wine list; women are (more) frequently regarded as eligible, too. In fact, I was handed the list just the other week (full disclosure: my male companion was frantically waving the sommelier away). Cowardly dining companions aside, one reason women may be getting the wine list more often may be that there are more female sommeliers working the floor. Belinda Chang, wine director at the Modern in New York, estimates there are 30% more female sommeliers now than when she started out in 1995. Ms. Chang (who says she is handed the list 50% of the time when she's dining out) takes a direct approach to determining the gender of The Decider when she's working. She simply approaches the table and asks, "Who's in charge?" Half the time, said Ms. Chang, "The man will point to the woman." (Though for some couples, this sentiment may apply only to the question of wine.) Ms. Chang said she can pretty much predict who is going to end up with the wine list. The aperitif is usually the giveaway." If a guy orders a glass of lager, I probably won't be handing the list to him," said Ms. Chang, who gives a man—or woman—who orders a glass of Grüner Veltliner much better odds.

Meanwhile, the wine list has lost a bit of its ceremony, not to mention heft. Another rule gone by the wayside is that a serious wine list should look—and feel—like a library book.

Today, a wine list may be no more than a few sheets of paper or even the back of a menu.

It could even be a tablet computer. (Except at a steakhouse. Where beef is king, the wine list comes leather-bound.) Scott Monette, co-owner and wine director of the Flagstaff House in Boulder, Colo., switched from a traditional wine list to an iPad a few months ago—a move apparently so shocking it made the local news. With a wine list that features nearly 3,000 selections and is updated daily, Mr. Monette said he needed to reduce his paper and printing costs. So far it hasn't been cheaper—the restaurant spent about $10,000 on 13 iPads. But in the long run Mr. Monette said he expects to save money. A smart wine list might be the reason to dismantle rule No. 3: Sommeliers are the best source of advice. With wine lists that allow diners to access the Internet, sommeliers may not be diners' first source of information. Electronically emancipated diners can now look up descriptions, get the latest wine scores—and even find out how much that Cabernet really costs at retail.

I asked Mr. Monette if he was afraid the iPads would stop his customers from talking to his sommeliers. And did his sommeliers resent the change? I experienced a bit of iPad antipathy recently myself during lunch with a wine collector who spent about half an hour researching a bottle on his own iPad—ignoring both me and the hovering sommelier.

Mr. Monette wasn't worried. Though his wine stewards had been nervous at the beginning, Mr. Monette said the tablets had actually inspired his customers to ask better questions. According to Mr. Monette, there was a "deeper discussion" between stewards and diners. (I wondered if that included such penetrating questions as "Why is this Cabernet marked up four times retail?")

This brings us to the fourth rule ripe for discarding: When in doubt, order the second-cheapest wine on the list.

The idea behind this rule was always that the second-cheapest wine would be a pretty good deal and the person ordering it wouldn't look like a cheapskate—or at least not as much as if he or she had ordered the wine at the absolute bottom.

Mark Ellenbogen, founding wine director of the famed Slanted Door in San Francisco and now the wine director of San Francisco's Bar Agricole, was dismissive of the second-cheapest-wine rule. "The second-cheapest wine is a formulaic maximum that obviously doesn't work," he said firmly.

Obviously? Well, it certainly wasn't easy to find the second-cheapest wine on Bar Agricole's list. That's because Mr. Ellenbogen has organized it mostly by producers—a few famous, most obscure. The second-cheapest wines that I found were the 2009 Señorío di P. Peciña Rioja ($29) and the 2009 Domaine de la Pépière Cabernet Franc ($30). In many cases, the second-cheapest wine isn't such a great deal.

As Christopher Oppewall, wine director of the Hospitality Restaurant Group of Cleveland noted, "The markups on the more expensive wines are much less." This is pretty much a universal truth—a wine that costs $9 at retail will often show up on a restaurant list for $28. On the other hand, on the Blue Point Cellar Big Bottle list, a magnum of the terrific 2006 Quintessa, a top Bordeaux-style blend from Napa Valley is $275 —about $40 more than retail.

My fifth and final invalid rule is the largely unspoken one that dictated certain wines—Pinot Grigios, Merlots and Chardonnays (particularly from California) were unfit for consumption by well-informed oenophiles.

Wines such as these were considered obvious or "starter" beverages that true wine lovers learned to outgrow. But as wine directors have discovered compelling examples of these grapes, wine drinkers have responded accordingly.

Serious wine lists feature minerally Chardonnays from California's Russian River and Sonoma Coast, well-structured Merlots from Napa and Washington state and complex Pinot Grigios from the Italian regions of Friuli and Alto Adige.

Even Mr. Ellenbogen, whose wine list is an exercise in vinous esoterica, has a Chardonnay among his Bar Agricole offerings, albeit one made in the mountains of Jura, France, and blended with the Savagin grape. When I complimented Mr. Ellenbogen on the selection, he disputed that he deliberately picked the obscure. It was just that he believed the best wine values were in the "least known" parts of the world.

That's a sixth rule, as yet unbroken: A great wine list (and a great wine director) will always have a point of view.

Here are four second-cheapest wines (and one that I'd be happy to see on a list) that are good finds and good deals at retail. 2008 Santadi Grotta Rossa, $12 Wine director John Slover (Ciano, New York) loves this Sardinian red, one of his second-cheapest offerings. Made from the Carignano (aka Cariagne) grape, it's soft and a bit rustic, with a bright acidity that makes it a good match with food. 2009 Hugel Gentil Alsace, $14 Wine director Chris Oppewall features this white at his Cleveland restaurants Blue Point, Cabin Club and Salmon Dave's. A blend of various traditional Alsace varietals from one of the region's top producers, it's flowery with a refreshingly zingy finish. 2009 Señorío de P. Peciña Rioja, $14 This juicy Spanish red isn't particularly complex, but it is fun to drink. Marked by aromas of bright cherry fruit, it's lively and charming. It's one of the cheapest finds on the list of Mark Ellenbogen's Bar Agricole in San Francisco. 2009 Ben Marco Malbec, $20 This well-priced Argentine Malbec would be a terrific second-cheapest red for any restaurant wine list. It's a big, plush, almost purple wine with notes of dark plum and tobacco. 2009 Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie, $12 This Muscadet is a favorite of mine and of Alexander LaPratt, wine director New York's DB Bistro Moderne. It has an unexpected bit of body and richness, and a decidedly minerally note.