I got a call the other day from a friend of mine, Rob, who wanted to know what wine he should order when he takes his new boss out for dinner.

He was in a bit of a bind: he wanted to choose something suitable, impressive even, but he didn’t want to spend too much money and added to that, his boss is a bit of a wine nut. I also know, because he’s told me, that in his industry (advertising) knowing how to choose a good wine is seen as being important.

His question, pulls into focus one of the potentially most awkward elements of going out for dinner. How do you pick the right wine from the abundance of choice that a modern restaurant will offer.

It wasn’t always this way. Big wine lists once existed only in the province of fancy restaurants. Neighbourhood restaurants and brasseries (…my spellchecker suggested I change that to brassieres) tended to have less choice than they have now.

The first restaurant I worked in, when I was a student, had only four wines on the list. There were a pair of French wines – red or white – and a pair of Californian wines, again red or white. The service of wine was very simple. When someone ordered wine, they’d always try and order the French (which was cheaper) and our only job was to persuade them to buy the Californian wine (which was more expensive.) Once we’d sold them the wine, we had to get it, take it to the table, take the cork out, leave the bottle on the table, un-poured and basically run like hell.
Things have come a long way since then: but is the large choice we now find adding to the sense of bamboozlement that so many dinners feel?

To an extent, wine lists are there for the dinner guest, the customer. Yet, they’re also there for the restaurant itself and the people who work there. It’s a statement of identity, it’s a signal to the competition and also to colleagues working in other restaurants. Which if fine, but it doesn’t always make choosing wine any easier.

Some wine lists are full of helpful information about what the wine is like and what it would go well with, whilst some others are only decipherable to people who already know about the wines and are more like catalogues or directories than menus.

Not knowing the restaurant Rob was going to and dreading having to trudge through a big, boring wine list my initial thought, since I was pushed for time, was to give a general recommendation; but there’s a problem with that. If I suggest that he simply choose, for example a cabernet sauvignon costing £35 we don’t really know what he would get. We’d know what he wouldn’t get, certainly, but is that enough?

Since the situation was important, I dedicated some time to giving him a more informed, specific suggestion. I looked up the restaurant website and helpfully, they had their dinner menu and current wine list on the site. It’s a modern Italian restaurant, I’ve never been, but the menu looked tempting and they had some good information there to help make choosing easier.

I made some recommendations and also gave him some suggestions as to why those were viable choices. However, the first thing I urged him to do was to find out what everyone was eating. This is a cardinal rule when matching food and wine, decide on the food first. The only time this doesn’t apply is if you’re having some special wines and the food has to complement them.
I made my first recommendation to suit if the accent was on the lighter dishes, such as pasta or seafood and chose a Fiano di Avellino. It’s one of those whites, sometimes described as a ‘food wine,’ meaning, I suppose, that it’s got the requisite balance between refreshing acidity and weight of fruit. I had actually tasted the wine before, which helped.

If they were going for something more hearty, I suggested that he choose a Lagrein, a red from Alto Adige in the north of Italy. I’m always drawn to wines made from the Lagrein grape for a couple of reasons. Firstly, not being the most well known grape, when I find it on a wine list, I know that it’s had more of a struggle to get there than better known wines:  so it’s probably pretty good and secondly it’s a savoury wine but packed with delicious fruit flavours.
Both of the wines I suggested were under £40 on the list.

He then came back and asked what he should do if the wines were unavailable. When that happens to me, I simply ask the wine waiter to bring me something in a similar style at the same price. I stress the word same. Use it and you’re less likely to get into any unwanted tangles where they bring you a similar bottle that costs £100 more than the one you wanted.
I got a call from him the next day, letting me know that the wines had been good and that he’s passed muster with the new boss. Phew!

If you’re ever in that situation and don’t know what to order; one thing you can do is to ask for help. You can do that openly – and just ask the waiter – or you can do it stealthily, if you want to impress the boss. The best way of asking for a recommendation furtively is to first order the food, then grab the wine list and the wine waiter. Point at a price on the menu and simply ask for something in that region, either red or white, that will go with the food.
Good luck.

TOP TIP: There are certain wines on a restaurant wine list that sell simply by virtue of where they sit on the list. For example, the ‘house wine’ is normally the biggest seller, even though it can often be the worst wine. The wines that are third or fourth cheapest on the list will tend to be much better than the ‘house,’ even though they don’t cost much more.

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