Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk |

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

When you go to a serious restaurant, the first thing you are asked after “sparkling or tap?” is “Would you like to see a wine list?”

Wine is an integral part of the dining experience and represents a significant portion of a restaurant’s income. That is why fine dining establishments, informal spots and even chains have upgraded their wine programs in the last few years. As the American palate has become more sophisticated, so too have the wine offerings.

But there is a huge difference between simply increasing the number of wines on a wine list and creating a comprehensive wine program. Here are a few things to look for when you evaluate a restaurant’s commitment to you as a wine-loving consumer.

1. The List: First, thumb through the list. Is it clean? Is it set up in a thoughtful way, divided by either region or grape or perhaps style? Or is it simply a laundry list arranged by red, white and price? Are there obvious misspellings (Chili as opposed to Chile, for example)? A brief glance can tell you a lot about the level of quality in a list.

Next, take a look at the wines by the glass. Do they provide a varied selection from interesting places? Or is it just three Pinot Noirs and three Chardonnays from California, differentiated by a couple of dollars in price? A good wine program will respect you and their own chef enough to give you a good by-the-glass choice that will pair well with the food you order.

Now go through the list. Remember, bigger is not always better but diversity is key. Say you like Pinot Noir. A good list will have wines from Oregon and California for well under $100 a bottle as well as some wines from Burgundy that can run anywhere from two to five times that. You are looking for a broad selection that shows the buyer has taken time to seek out unique wines that will fit your price range, rather than just buying big-name wines that he/she thinks will sell themselves.

On a great wine list the world is well-represented, the top labels are available in a host of vintages (this is called a vertical) and there are options in every category that will provide either a good wine for a fair price or an extraordinary wine, depending upon whether you wish to pay the price.

2. Service: Once you have a feel for what kind of wine you wish to order, talk to your server or the sommelier about the list. A good wine program usually holds tastings for all staff members, especially those who take customers’ orders.

Ask if there are comparable wines to the ones you are considering and if the server thinks the wine would pair well with your food. If you sense a little BS, ask to speak with someone who has more knowledge about the list. You are, after all, the one paying for the bottle.

3. Stemware: Good glassware is a critical component of a top-notch wine program. Not only should your glassware be spotless; it should be room temperature. Nothing kills a wine faster than a warm glass straight from the dishwasher. Today most good restaurants will provide crystal stemware that is appropriate for the wine you have ordered. If you receive a balloon-shaped Burgundy glass when you have ordered a Chateau Palmer Margaux 2005 from Bordeaux, then ask for a tall, more tapered Bordeaux glass to enjoy your indulgence.

4. Temperature: Wine should be stored and poured cool. Just as a warm glass can kill a wine, so can poor storage. Always make sure your wine bottle is cool to the touch, and cold if it is a white wine. Wine will warm when it is opened, but don’t buy a warm bottle and let the server try and rechill it. A warm bottle is not a good sign.

5. The Pour: Pay attention when they bring you your bottle of wine. A good server will show you the label first. Read it and make sure it is the wine you ordered. They will open the wine, smell both the cork and the bottle to make sure the wine is in good condition, and then pour you a taste. If you approve, then they should pour each glass at the table. A personal pet peeve is a server who pours too much wine in the first serving. Let the guests taste the wine and then pour more in a little while. It won’t go bad.

This isn’t rocket science, but if you think a little about what you order and how it is served, then you’re likely to enjoy your wine a little more as well.

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