For all the hedonism that wine epitomizes, it can cause its share of anxiety. Nowhere is the dread more palpable than at a fancy restaurant. The markups alone can cause indigestion even before the appetizers arrive.
But it's not just about money. How do you find the best selection for your dinner when the list is fatter than the Tokyo phone book? What if the pinot noir you select ends up smelling like a pair of old sneakers? Do you risk the shame of proclaiming it off when, in fact, it's supposed to taste like old sneakers?
Even sommeliers, the wine professionals in fine-dining establishments, are not immune to embarrassment. Rajat Parr, wine director of San Francisco's Mina Group, with 18 top restaurants, including Seablue in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, under his command, recalls a recent moment of awkwardness while dining out with friends.
The bottle Mr. Parr ordered arrived tableside, and he dutifully smelled the small pour offered by the sommelier. It seemed vaguely pungent, but he was uncertain whether the winemaker had simply applied too much sulphur as a preservative or whether it was, in fact, terminally spoiled by cork taint, a foul-smelling fungal defect that randomly affects even the best bottles. "I thought, 'Maybe it'll blow off, maybe it's just a little excess sulphur,' " he told me over the phone last week. So Mr. Parr nodded approval to the sommelier, who proceeded to pour for the table. "Five minutes later, somebody goes, 'Is this okay?' And I'm like, 'Wow, it is badly corked.' "
Swallowing his pride, he summoned back the sommelier, confessed his mistake and politely requested a replacement. He got it, no questions asked.
In an effort to help restaurant patrons navigate the minefield of wine service with aplomb, if not teach them what cork taint actually smells like, Mr. Parr has just published Secrets of the Sommeliers, co-written with Jordan Mackay, the wine and spirits editor of San Francisco magazine. I spoke with Mr. Parr to solicit a few insider tips on picking wines in restaurants as well as what to serve at home.
What's up with those plate-crushing wine lists in expensive restaurants? Are we expected to read War and Peace before the appetizers come just to find a decent beverage?
Most good wine lists should have some kind of a section which is kind of like a go-to - a "wines of consequence" or "seasonal" short list. If not, think of what you want, white or red, and a certain flavour profile and go straight to a region. Say, Piedmont or Burgundy or the Rhône or Beaujolais. Then go to that section and pick something real quick and move on.
If I want a special red in a certain category but want to spend less than, say, the gross domestic product of Malta, is it tacky to talk price? Is the sommelier going to nudge me up beyond what I can afford?
You have to be honest with the sommelier and say, "You know what? This is the kind of wine I like and I want a good value." Don't be shy to give a price. Sommeliers don't usually want to ask guests what they want to spend. That's not very tactful.
You mean patrons aren't the only ones nervously dancing around the price issue?
It's perfectly okay to mention your budget. It makes it easy on the sommelier. I'd rather undersell than oversell.
Let's say I'm feeling timid and want to avoid the intrusion of a sommelier, but I still want to impress my dining companions without breaking the bank. What should I do?
Go to the small wines from a good year in a particular region. For example, 2005 was a great vintage in Burgundy. Get an '05 Marsannay or, say, a Givry, which is going to be on the list for $50 to $60, rather than a more expensive appellation.
What if I'm hosting business clients and want to show off by ordering a trophy label but don't want a $1,000 beverage charge weighing down my expense receipt?
If you want to get a well-known wine, a top Bordeaux, say, but you still want value, you don't want to get a 2000 Bordeaux. You want to get maybe a '99 or maybe a 2001, which is going to have the same impact.
So, bear in mind the less-hyped years and look for an elite estate from one of those years, which presumably is still going to be well made?
Meat and fish always seem to set the tone for wine pairing, whether in a restaurant or at home. But there are many vegetarians out there. What would you generally recommend for vegetarian fare?
Among whites, I like sauvignon blanc, grüner veltliner and chenin blanc. Among reds, I tend to go with gamay or maybe cabernet franc - wines that have more subtlety and are lower in alcohol, maybe an earthy, vegetal note to them. Even pinot noir, or northern Rhône reds, like Saint-Joseph. Stay away from exuberant reds like zinfandel or big cabernet sauvignons.
What are your affordable favourites for casual nights at home?
I'm a Beaujolais fanatic. I always have crus beaujolais ready to go. Northern Rhône - I love Cornas. And then a little Chablis.
Cru Beaujolais - those are the quality reds of the Beaujolais region, prominently labelled according to the village in which they're grown, such as Morgon, Brouilly, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie and Saint-Amour. I like them too, but so few people ever think of them.
The 2009s are just unbelievable. I would probably say it's the best value in wine today. The wines are fruit-forward and just delicious.
Like me, you're not a big fan of red wine with cheese. The acidity, salt and creamy fat tend to play havoc with most reds.
Red wine can work with some cheeses, maybe, but about 95 per cent of cheeses out there are better with white wine.
You write in your book about the tyranny of those different wineglass shapes designed to coax out the best from specific grapes. What about wine lovers with scant cupboard space and a preference for simplicity. Is there one shape that will do the job?
My favourite is the Riedel red wine Ouverture glass. I would choose to drink from it forever. And it's good for both red wine and white. That's the glass I have at home.
What about Champagne? You're not a fan of the flute, I gather.
I drink my champagne in the same Ouverture glass.
This interview has been edited and condensed.