Weirded Out by Wine

Is ordering wine in restaurants making you crazy? Dear Dara prescribes anti-psychotics.

"Corked wine is no one's fault," Bill Summerville, the sommelier at one local white-tablecloth palace, told me. "It's not the guest's fault, not the waiter's, not the restaurant's. If it's corked, send it back. There's no reason to make a big deal of it, on either side. If anything, there's an opportunity for the staff to show either their ignorance and lack of caring, or their professionalism." What do they do at La Belle Vie in such instances? "We ask them if they'd like to try another of the same, or move on to something else. Sometimes a corked wine will smell more and more corked as it breathes," Summerville noted. "So if you don't get it right away, just bring it up when you notice it. The waiter will normally be able to get credit from the distributor. So, he can make an ass of himself, or open a new bottle. It happens to everyone: The other night someone brought in an '86 Margaux, and it was corked—flat, totally void of flavor." (This, by the way, is the wine-head equivalent of buying a Lamborghini, waiting several years to drive it, and then hopping in to discover it has no engine. Exceedingly displeasing.)

As to your question about how to ask a sommelier for a wine, Summerville said that if you don't feel comfortable with wine-speak, just name your price: Literally. Say: I want a $25 bottle, a $40 bottle, or what have you. It's just as embarrassing and awkward for the server to hunt and peck for your secret price as it is for you to endure being hunted and pecked at.

"People should be as blunt as possible with the staff," Summerville told me. "By all means say, 'I don't know a lot about wine.' No matter what restaurant I've worked at, the goal is to make people feel comfortable. If the environment is a little intimidating and the list a little intimidating, I tell my staff: Just step into the zone. Let them know one way or another this is Minnesota, and we're relaxed, we're nice. I love it when people say, 'I don't know a lot about wine,' because then I can turn them on to something cool." And what about the elephant on the wine list, the money? Don't sweat that either, advises Summerville: "Just tell the waiter: I want to spend 25 bucks. Speak as directly and bluntly with the waiter or wine person as you can. If you're on a date and want to look like a bigshot, point to something on the list and say: 'I was thinking of something like this,'" which should lead your server to suggest similarly priced bottles.

Corked and abandoned: If the wine smells like an old, wet dog, don't be afraid to send it back
City Pages
Corked and abandoned: If the wine smells like an old, wet dog, don't be afraid to send it back

If you're anxious about shopping the lower-priced parts of the list, don't be. "It takes more skill to pick a good cheap wine" for a wine list, Summerville told me, "especially since all the expensive wines are right in front of you. It's definitely a point of pride with me to find cheaper things for the list, the same way you could spend 60 thousand dollars for a car but get something better at 30 thousand." Just as there are good cheap wines, Summerville emphasized, there are bad expensive ones. "There are so many overblown, overpriced wines that you see at all the steakhouses and corporate restaurants, it's ridiculous." As to no-brainer picks for the wine-list-wary, Summerville says that it's hard to go wrong with Cava, the sparkling Spanish wine, and that anything from Austria or Portugal is a pretty good bet right now, as the regions are so unpopular that no one is importing any of their second-tier wines. If price is no concern, blanc de blanc Champagne goes with everything, and is never a wrong choice, says Summerville.

Does that dull your anxiety to a nice, soothing background noise, Perplexed? If not, I also talked to Tim Niver, former general manager at Aquavit and current co-owner and server at his gastro-diner the Town Talk Diner, and he told me that if truth be told, most of the people who go on and on about wine are just blowhards anyway. "Put the big talker in a blind tasting and have him tell you which is a Cabernet, which is a Merlot, which is a Chianti—chances are 95 percent of the population can't do that, including me. Blind tasting is a hard game, and, that said, most people probably wouldn't know the difference between a really great bottle of wine and a good one. [With] a 1982 Chateau Petrus versus a Barossa Valley Shiraz, the subtle differences are lost on most people." Furthermore, Niver told me, when you look at your neighboring tables in a fancy white-tablecloth place, please know that all but a handful of your fellow diners are drinking in the $45 to $80 range—or at least they were at Aquavit. Those premium-price wines are on the list partly because if they're not, the restaurant becomes a less attractive destination for the 5 percent or so of expense-account diners and big-wine hunters. That $300 wine? No one's expecting you to order it, and if you haven't dedicated your life to the stuff by now, chances are it wouldn't make a $300 impression on you anyway. Does that feel insulting? Or anti-democratic? It doesn't bug me, but maybe that's just because I've gotten enough parking tickets to find inner peace.

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