How To Face Down the Wine List and Win

by Nilay Gandhi


The more you run, the more it’s gonna chase you. And odds are you look pretty ugly when you run. So quit being afraid of wine!

Remember Franzia? Night Train? Boone’s “What Exactly Grows on This” Farm? Remember the winos in your back alley? There’s a reason they were called that. They drank more wine than anybody. The stuff that the guy who thought his trucker hat was a salt shaker slurped with the leftover Italian beef you gave him twice a week for lunch. Seemed like he had all the answers. So what happened to you?

A few years go by, you’ve got a couple degrees on your armoire, you move to the city. You say and purchase “armoires.” They call you “sir” (men) or agree to mix the Splenda into your beverage (women) at Starbucks. You start eating tapas. You actually understand itemized deductions. And you’re afraid of wine.

You used to listen to Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and you’re afraid of wine.

Maybe because that leatherbound book your server slaps on the table seems to have the same heft as the last term paper you had to write. Except, this isn’t an assignment, and if anyone’s being tested, it isn’t you. It’s your restaurant. Your server. God help you, your sommelier. Yet, just like that term paper, there’s one truth to that wine list you’re so terrified to negotiate: it’s full of baloney.

And it’s meant to be, actually. Because unless you’re lucky enough to eat at a restaurant where the list is one clean, thoughtful page of bottles, with several affordable choices by the glass and maybe even a couple cool cocktails and homemade sodas on the back, the whole point is that you’ll need to admit you know nothing. Good luck having the cojones then to turn down their recommendation. Good luck leaving with your cojones.

It’s easy to convince yourself the wine’s good once you get it, as you sit there wondering what the heck you’re supposed to do with the cork (answer: nothing) and what exactly you should say after the first half-ounce pour as the steward stands there staring at you like you’ve grown an extra head (answer: anything, though I prefer, “Do you do your eyelashes?”). Sparkling water never gets this kind of attention.

But was this really what you wanted, to be bossed around and spend a lot of money to drink something you might not like? Are you enjoying yourself at all?


What you reasonably may not realize is that the big wine list, the ritual, this general sense of unease — you asked for it. It’s not there for them. It’s all there to remind you you’re at a restaurant. You’re eating in public. It’s giving you bang for your buck.

If wine directors had their way, you’d see simpler, often local, small-batch wines (I’ll save that list for another time — in general, if the varietal sounds like a strain of staph, and it’s under $50, order it). These wines are almost always better with food. They’re almost always flat-out better. We’re talking wines from southern France or Loire, Austria, Spanish wines from Washington, the whole of northern Italy. Things with no region at all, labeled vin de pays, IGT, D.O.

Plus, they’re cheap, and no matter how you feel when you have to split the bill on two of your own credit cards at the end of the night, most of these guys aren’t making any money. I’ve had enough after-hours “sessions” with so-called sommeliers to know that after all the blind tastings, service classes, and Aubrac horn corkscrews, they all like to do the same thing: get hypothermically drunk on whatever’s around, eat tacos, and have sex. (Master Sommeliers can do this in reverse order.) It’s the only way I’ve ever seen it done.

Sorry if I’ve shattered your fragile Friday nights, but hopefully you’ll jump through that broken glass. You now have license to walk into any restaurant and toss out half the list. Start with the even-numbered pages; I find this paper useful for kindling.


Almost without fail, the second page of every section is full of bin numbers they’ve got to carry for the rich folks. Here you’ll often find your back-vintage Bordeaux and all that garbage from Napa that’s usually too heavy for your meal. They’re show wines really meant for some cheese, maybe plain buttered pasta, or just drinking barefoot in a cold, concrete cellar. Stop ordering them.

The less you worry about these wines, the less your server has to. You’re doing them all a favor. Before your dad tells you how you’re going to ruin it for him and all his golf buddies, understand that there are most likely only four to six regulars at his favorite restaurant ordering the good stuff. They pay for most of the business. You ordering an ’82 Lafite every third Valentine’s Day does not.

What to do with the rest of the list? Be honest about what you want, and ask. If you don’t know what to say, say you like “esoteric” wines. Or mention what you like to eat. Not the foie torchon and fish egg staircases-not what you’d eat here. Tell them what you eat for lunch everyday. This is who you really are. Pizza? Then they’ve got some dolcetto for you. Lamb shawarma? Peep the pinot and syrah. Fish and chips? Chug this muscadet.

Comfortable spending $50? $25 and under? Good. Because now you’re in the sweet spot. These are the wines that the hot, nerdy redhead you’re talking to actually helped pick out. Odds are, they’re also the ones the staff drinks at family meal.

Now, sometimes you’re just out of luck. You’ve gone through the motions, tried your hardest to be honest, but you’re not getting anywhere. You’ve followed my directions, ordered a wine, and still feel like you just made change in the collection plate. Truth is, some servers are jerks-upsellers and know-it-alls out for a tip they think they very well deserve. Whatever you call them, they (and the owners who encourage them) have no place in this business. They’re the reason you had to read this column in the first place.

So, when everything goes wrong, when in doubt, just ROCK. That’s right; I came up with an acronym for you.

It goes like this:

Costieres (de Nimes).
Kermit Lynch.

There is at least one wine among these four labels on every decent winelist in the world, and the wine almost always go with your food.

â —  Riesling. If you’re completely lost and looking for a white, pick up the most affordable Riesling on the menu, preferably from the Mosel. These medium-bodied whites come in a range of sweetnesses. To play it safe, pick up either the Kabinett or Spatlese. Often, the cheaper it is, the drier (and more appropriate for your food). Whether you’re having salad, grilled mahi, chicken or porchetta, a decent bottle of riesling will invariably get you through your meal.


â —  Then comes Oregon. Yup, the entire state. Because no place in the world makes such a universally food-friendly smattering of reds and whites. Whether a fuller bodied Dundee Hills pinot noir, a lighter, fish-friendly style from a winery like The Eyrie, or an incredible Austrian-influenced “field blend” white, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an occasion when something from Oregon won’t work. They’ve even started making amazing sparkling wine.

â —  Costieres de Nimes, a little off the beaten bath, straddles akimbo on the southern coast of France between the Rhone and western Languedoc. They tend to take the ripe, floral fruit of both regions without the gritty texture. They taste fancy and unabashedly delicious. When you ask for that “esoteric” wine I told you to ask for, this is usually what you’ll get. As particular as it is, it’s the trendy wine among tasting circles right now, the way Spanish garnacha was a few years ago. Which means, in a few years, you either won’t be able to afford it or you’ll never find a decent one again. But right now, they’re all good.

â —  And, lastly, Kermit Lynch. He isn’t a wine at all, actually. He’s just a lovely old man in the middle of Berkeley, California-a man whose life’s mission has been to import well-crafted French wine that he would like to drink. When it comes to importers, few have a palate as generous and welcoming as Kermit’s. It won’t be noted on the menu-you’ll have to ask-but if all else fails, see if they’ve got anything Kermit brings in. Even if they don’t, your server will immediately understand the kind of wine you’re looking for. You might even end up with a free glass of grappa at the end of the night.

And if anyone ever, ever looks at you sideways while you’re choosing a wine, give him the finger-and then leave and go grab a hot beef dip with your beau. The taste of sweet, beefy jus and peppers on your date’s lips is about as good as it’s ever gonna get anyway.

Nilay Gandhi is the proprietor of the excellent wine blog 750 mL; he even gives personalized wine pairing advice on request.

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Photos (in order) by dizablah, mastermaq, underexpos and drcorneilus, from Flickr via Creative Commons.