Sarah B. has been tremendously patient waiting for me to post answers to her questions. (Has January been the most dramatic month of anyone else’s life?) So without further ado…
BACKGROUND FROM SKB: My adviser and I took a potential faculty candidate out to dinner… Well she was Australian and apparently knew her wines (better than ME let me tell you). We weren’t at a restaurant that had a sommelier but we just had a waiter. My adviser and this candidate hemmed and hawed about what wine to order (good lord it took 25 minutes just to PICK a wine… I mean really… it seemed an inordinately long time given that we hadn’t ordered FOOD and I at least was super hungry!). Okay they eventually decided on some zinfindel (a red). I was gunning for a chianti but didn’t voice my opinion for fear that it would lead to another round of discussions that could prolong the ordering of actual food… When the wine came it was neat – they brought this vase & a little shot glass and they poured a bit into the shot glass (a classy one… not like party in cancun shot glass). They waiter let my advisor (the only guy at the table) sip it to deem it acceptable – when this was confirmed, that the wine was in fact good, he poured each of us a glass and then the rest into the vase.
Q: If you don’t know what you are going to order, or what the breakdown of what people at the table are going to order, how on earth are you supposed to pick a wine? Don’t some wines go well with chicken vs. fish vs. beef…? (I personally only really enjoy reds and I have a very very poor ability to discern any differences beyond… red & white… shameful I know but whatever).
A: Certain wines go better with certain foods, yes, and you can build up some very basic knowledge to help lead you through the wine list in that way. For example, the fats in rich foods will lessen the experience of those mouth-drying tannins in wine, so very bold, tannic red wines go well with rich, fatty meats. And if you’re planning on having a few different wines throughout the meal, you probably want to start with whites or lighter, dryer reds. However, the most important rule in ordering wine is to choose a wine that you love. These days people are breaking the pairing “rules” all over the place, and it’s about time that it became an accepted practice! The first step is to discover the varietals or regions whose characteristics taste good to you. Once you’re familiar with a few styles, you’ll be able to pick the ones that you’re in the mood for at that particular meal. And I personally believe that there is nothing that doesn’t pair well with sparkling wine, even peanut butter and jelly.
The other thing to keep in mind when you’re ordering is that the sommelier is there to help you. They don’t expect you to be familiar with all of the wines on the list, and it is their job (and hopefully their pleasure) to offer you some guidance. Most good restaurants will have built a wine list specifically to complement the menu, so it’s hard to go wrong. In addition, the server can usually recommend a couple wines that will really suit the entire menu, which is great if you have a group with diverse food tastes or if you plan to order a range of different dishes.
Q: MUST waiters always assume the guy at the table knows the most about wine? What’s this custom all about? What’s with the letting the guy taste first?
A: You know, I started to answer this question from the male-dominated wine industry angle, but I actually think that the issue has less to do with wine and more with gender roles in dining establishments. Etiquette and chivalry, if you will. After all, don’t most servers still place the bill in front of the gentleman, too? (I happen to believe that this is actually pretty charming, but I’m definitely more of a romantic than a feminist.) Anyway, a waiter/sommelier might defer to the gentleman at the table because he’s the one who’s more likely to be concerned about looking manly in front of his date. And tradition tells us that confidence — not necessarily knowledge — even in menu reading, is a sign of manliness. However, these days, I think you’ll find that servers are more egalitarian about things. They’re likely to address all of the diners at the beginning of the process, and then will probably shift their focus to the one person who TAKES CONTROL. Interestingly, when Oren and I go out to eat together, the server tends to address me. I think this can be kind of weird for Oren, but it’s just the result of me taking more control of the ordering process. I feel more comfortable looking at a wine list, so I speak up, so the sommelier defers to me. The woman. Roar.
Q: IF there is a table of 3 or 4 women, what’s the protocol for letting someone do the ‘take-one-for-the-team’ taste test?
A: First of all, flip around your thinking and remember that choosing wine should be a positive experience. The sommelier is there to please you, not test you. So I like to think of the taste test as an honor and a privilege. You get to decide the fate of the entire table. Nice! And in truth, you will very very rarely need to reject the wine. The point of the tasting is not to decide if the wine will pair well with the meal (your sommelier should have helped you with that before you ordered), it’s just a test to make sure that the wine isn’t corked. And to answer your question, I would give the taster to whichever woman took the reins in ordering the wine or whomever you think will best be able to judge whether the wine has gone bad. If you’re all at about the same level, give it to whomever is most comfortable under that little bit of pressure. And remember, a simple nod is all that’s needed to confirm a successful taste test!