As a wine director, working at a restaurant affords me the luxury of tasting several wines from different importers whose portfolios reflect a certain sensibility towards winemakers. Often I have a chance to taste older vintages which can prove useful in understanding how wines evolve with time. This is especially important in wines such as Barolo or Gran Reserva Riojas which require extensive cellaring.
One very large negative as a wine director is that I go out to restaurants less and less. The opportunity is just not there, and I often prefer the comfort of a home cooked meal than the same old scene. When I do choose to go out, I am ready to drink some serious wine, eager to see what my fellow wine directors are putting on their lists.
Herein lay the pitfalls of knowing too much. Wine is directly responsible for the financial stability of a restaurant, especially today. Almost no money can be made from the food, because chefs today use very high quality ingredients. All the profit is pinned on the alcohol, and as a consumer you should understand that. Rather than lamenting that a twelve dollar bottle has been marked up to forty-two, round out the cost with the entire package. If the atmosphere, service, and food met or exceeded your expectations, the mark up was well executed.
The problem arises when you know the price of a bottle and there is veritable price gouging. Just recently I scoured a list at a high end Madison Avenue Spanish restaurant and found a bottle of wine selling for fifty-two dollars. I serve the same wine at the restaurant for twenty-four dollars. I know what we both paid for the bottle. What’s up with that? It’s an insult and an abuse.
For the most part, wine directors offer some values on their lists. Even if you have no idea how to navigate a wine list, just ask the sommelier where the values are. Sommeliers are supposed to be helpful, and wine directors love to sneak in great deals like programmers like to include secret codes. If that fails, just ask your server, who undoubtedly has favorites as well.
Finally, beware of the younger vintages. The great thing about an extensive wine list is the opportunity to try hard to get wines, wines that are summarily snapped up by collectors before it ever reaches your local wine shop. Just order a 1964 Barolo to understand exactly what I mean. You have to pay for this, of course, but at least this is an available option to you as a foodie and wine lover. All too often great wines are offered on lists, albeit too young. For instance, I have been noticing on more Spanish wine lists the inclusion of the 1998 R.Lopez de Heredia Vina Bosconia. I have tasted this wine on several occasions this past year, and this wonderful effort from the Rioja Alta is a superb value, except for it being absolutely not ready to drink. Yet it is popping up on lists everywhere. What gives?
The same is true for many wines, like CDP’s (Chateau-neuf du Papes) which should not be uncorked for at least seven years after release. And barolos, brunellos, barbarescos, bordeaux, gran reserva riojas. The list goes on and on. Why do restaurants offer these wines?
These wines offer prestige to a list. Caché. A degree of excitement to the wine lover.
Another solution is that the wine can be decanted and aerated, thus exposing the young volatile juice to oxygen, promoting the aging process at your table. Is this a substitute to bottle aging? Quite frankly, the answer is very often a resounding no. My good friend el capitan uses a technique he learned from a Barolo master. Uncork the wine four hours before drinking, and transfer the liquid from decanter to decanter to promote accelerated aeration. Repeat several times. Something you would never do with the older vintages. I’ve seen this work with my own eyes and palate, but I’m not convinced just yet.
One thing you can do if you have an established relationship with the sommelier is to call ahead and ask him/her to decant it for you in advance. If there is a fee involved, this is well worth it, and if needed provide your credit card for insurance. That way when you arrive to the restaurant, all of your wine is prêt-a-boire (ready to drink). This may seem like obsessive planning, but it will be worth the effort, especially for young, tannic, closed wines.
Next time you scope a wine list for the treasures, be careful, ask a lot of questions, and drink the best wine you possibly can afford for the meal. Remember, life is too short to drink bad wine.