Wine List Navigation Takeaways: Great Questions Answered

Mine for Hidden GemsAt Deb’s March 26th Wine List Navigation: Earn Your Wings workshop for addressing the challenges of ordering wine in the NYC restaurant setting, the ladies in attendance were quite intuitive when it came to zeroing in on the “real dirt” and uncovering the information that gives sommeliers the edge. As a former member of the wine trade, it makes me proud to see people coming to the table with above-average wine instincts, eager to take it to the next level. As evidenced by their shrewd and relevant questions following Deb’s main presentation, these women are serious about wine enjoyment, and are not willing to let intimidating wine lists stand in their way. Here are my responses to 2 of them.

Vintage: Not Just a Born-On Date

One insightful inquiry that Deb reported from the evening concerned vintage, and why it matters. Vintage is perhaps the most vital piece of information to help guarantee an enjoyable wine will arrive at the table. Signifying the harvest year of a wine, vintage can also be thought of as the “4th dimension” of a vineyard or region: There are the 3 where dimensions of locality (latitude, longitude and altitude), and the 4th dimension of time, or when the fruit was growing.

The thought of memorizing Robert Parker’s vintage chart is dizzying. Learn a few basics, and consult the sommelier for the details.

For instance, Grenache grapes grown a decade ago in the Rhone region should ideally have become a gloriously matured wine at this moment. But when you consider that the summer of 2003 was ferociously hot in France, and that most of the clusters from that year’s harvest were overly or unevenly ripened (resulting in many wines that are alcoholic, flabby and quick to mature), you might want to choose something else. But choose carefully; a Rhone from a stellar vintage like 2010 can also be a trap, as it is far too young to consume, and may come off as tannic, fruitless or one-dimensional. A great Rhone selection would be a ’98 or ’05 vintage….but unless you’re tediously tuned-into wine publications and vintage reports, how would you have such information handy? The best solution is to memorize a handful of recent vintages in your favorite category, and consult the wine server for the rest. Finally, don’t forget to check the vintage on the bottle that’s presented, to be sure it matches the vintage promised.

$tepping Up

The other standout question of the evening….“When should I spend more money on a wine?”….brought me right back to my wine retail days. I had a ball borrowing my mentor’s clever and candid device for describing heavenly, high-end juice: “expensive and worth it”. Still, as wine consumers, we have to be careful not to correlate price with quality by automatically assuming the most expensive wine on the list will be the best wine (ordering it is no way to impress someone either). 

Wine List with Expensive Prices It takes years of wine experience to understand why one vineyard’s wine costs 3 times as much as their neighbor’s. With such experience, it becomes clear that there are multiple factors governing price that are unrelated to a wine’s inherent quality. These include availability, demand, vending source, vineyard prestige, advertisement expense, bottle age, critics’ scores and various other logical and illogical circumstances. Notice how these factors have no regard for your own palate preferences?

My advice on spending more: it can be a fulfilling and worthwhile move, provided you have a strategy. Start by spending the bucks in a wine category you love, on a bottle from a superior and maturing vintage. If you like the results, try it next time with a category that’s unfamiliar to you. Enjoy the journey!