Wine List Navigation Takeaways: Shrewd as a Sommelier

Mine for Hidden GemsAt last Wednesday’s Wine List Navigation workshop, a dozen ladies “earned their wings” by understanding and troubleshooting the challenges of ordering wine in a restaurant. It comes as no surprise that even those of us with a moderate wine background can instantly feel a few feet shorter when presented with a comprehensive wine list, the layout of which might be quirky or even ostentatious.

In business, they say “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. The restaurant wine ritual-equivalent, an underlying lesson from my workshop, goes a little something like “it’s not what you know, it’s what you know to ask”. My lesson’s objective was first to familiarize my guests with various list layouts, and then to arm them with the most intuitive questions to ask a server in order to have the appropriate bottle of wine arrive at the table. These ladies were not just perceptive, there were fully-immersed!

Hunk or Fox?

Dividing experienced wine drinkers into new-world/old-world camps is the most common way that sommeliers can isolate people’s stylistic preferences, and zero in on the right wine choices. Some of the ladies from my workshop were new to exploring vino, and hadn’t yet taken residence in either camp. To them, I illustrated a fun analogy, comparing the brawn, power, roundness and density of new-world wine to the bodybuilder hunk at the gym, while liking the suave, charming, elegant, proportioned elements of old-world wine to the toned, chiseled fox from the coffee shop. Both have strong appeal; which one you choose depends on what you want out of your experience. There, of course, are more layers to distinguishing old-world from new, but knowing these basics, and converting them into a conversation with the sommelier is a strong and effective start.

The Milky Way

Perception of the “weight” of wine is another crucial factor in determining if a wine is right for you. Different wines grown in different climates, even when composed of the same grape variety, can run the weight spectrum. Last Wednesday, our ladies took away a valuable wine-weight analogy that will keep them on the same page with any knowledgeable restaurant server. To sum it up, think of the variations on milk. From skim and 1%/2% low-fat, to whole milk, and on to half-n-half and heavy cream, the most recognizable contrast relates to the weight of each milk
on your palate. So, when ordering Chardonnay, it’s priceless information to a somm to know if you prefer something austere from Chablis (skim milk), or more intense from Meursault (whole milk), or downright buttery from Sonoma (half-n-half).

The Ultimate Challenge

Fundamental to chatting effectively with a somm is a basic-to-moderate ability to distinguish the name of a grape from the name of a region. Getting used to the American model for labeling wines by grape listening intentlyvariety will trap you in first gear when attempting to tackle European labels, which seldom make mention of grape at all. Our participants were experienced in discerning fruit from zip code, and even where there were holes in their knowledge, they proved intuitive when put to the test. Unfortunately, if you have some catching up to do, the old-fashioned approach of memorization is best. If such a task seems unappealing, there’s always the super old-fashioned option: Just ask the server what’s drinking well.


Check out some of the initiative questions asked: SO GOOD, they deserve their own post.