Restaurant Wine Buying Tips – VinoServant

With the President’s Day Weekend approaching a lot of you will be heading out to eat dinner, and with this in mind, I asked Josh Moser, the Founder of VinoServant, to provide some tips on how to choose a bottle of wine in a restaurant. Josh started VinoServant to show users the Best Values on restaurant wine lists. If you look at some of his wine list reviews (Boulevard, Harris’ Restaurant, House of Prime Rib, Waterfront Restaurant & Café, La Mar, Los Altos Grill, Spruce, Wayfare Tavern, EPIC Roasthouse, The Village Pub), you will see that he shows the price at the restaurant followed by the mark-up over retail (2008 Dashe, Dry Creek Valley, Zinfandel | $46 | 2.3x | This translates into a retail price of $20). He won’t recommend a wine if the mark-up is greater than 2.5x.

The Wine List

Below are six practical pointers on how to navigate a restaurant wine list. For a lot of people this can be a daunting task for the following reasons:

1) You haven’t had a chance to review the wine list online, and / or you don’t recognize any of the wines on the list
2) All you want to do is order a bottle of wine that tastes good while not breaking the bank
3) Instead of trying a new varietal, you stick with what you are familiar with

Tip #1 – Figure out What Wines you Like and Dislike

It doesn’t matter if you are going to a restaurant with a wine list that is 25 pages long (300+ selections) or a neighborhood spot with a wine list that has 30 selections; you need to be able to explain to the waiter, wine director or sommelier which wines you favor. Once you provide some examples of wines that you like and dislike, along with how much money you want to spend, your server will then be able to narrow the list down to those wines that might appeal to you.

Tip #2 – The Wine and Food-Pairing Conundrum

A lot of people want to drink a bottle of wine with their dinner that will complement the dish they are eating. The problem with this approach is that it limits the number of selections on the list that might be suitable. When you order a bottle of wine in a restaurant it may well be most expensive component of your bill.

For example, if you go to a neighborhood Italian restaurant and order a pasta dish it is going to cost $12 to $20, and if you order a bottle of wine it is going to be $30 to $50. If you go to a steakhouse and order a $45 porterhouse, then a bottle of wine is more than likely going to run $65 to $100.

Our advice in these instances is simple: order the bottle that you want to drink instead of the bottle that you feel will complement your meal. If the wine you want to order is an awful match for what you or the other people in your party are ordering, then order a glass of wine that will complement that specific entrée.

Another approach is to figure out the bottle(s) of wine that you want to drink and have that dictate what food items your party orders. We are firm believers that it is “all about the wine and no longer about the food.”

Tip #3 – Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are King

Owners, waiters, wine directors and sommeliers in Bay Area restaurants, repeatedly say that they don’t have any problem selling California Cabernets, Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs. Which then leads to the question that you should always ask —— What wines on the list represent the best values? Remember, restaurants want you to keep coming back, and if you drink a bottle of wine from a restaurant that you remember a week or two later, chances are you will go back to that restaurant and drink more wine.

We have found that the best values on most lists are the following:

1) Sparkling wines from Spain and Italy
2) Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc & Pinot Blanc
3) Zinfandel
4) Merlot
5) Tempranilos (Rioja and Ribera del Duero) from Spain

We want to touch on Merlot, yes it gets a bad wrap, but you have to remember that in most cases the other Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot) are used in the final blend. If you are at a steakhouse and are shocked by the prices of Cabernet Sauvignon from California, then we highly encourage you to consider the Merlots on the list. If you recall from the movie “Sideways,” Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) bashes Merlot, but we later find out his prized bottle is the 1961 Cheval Blanc which is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

Tip #4 – Don’t order the cheapest wine on the list

There are always exceptions, but usually the cheapest bottles on the list are not the best values. If you see a white wine for $30, chances are it retails for $10, and if you see a red wine for $45, it probably retails for $15. We don’t like our readers paying 3x over retail. In this example, our advice would be to focus in on the whites that sell for $35 to $40 and the reds that sell for $55 to $60.

Tip # 5 – Vintages Don’t Matter

Let us start out by expressing our position on vintage scores. Yes, vintage scores matter, but if you are ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant for less than $100, chances are it is going to be a wine that is two to seven years old and most wine critics will state that it can be consumed now.

Our advice is to look for wines with a few years of age. For example, right now in Bay Area restaurants you will see a large number of 2009 California and Oregon Pinot Noirs on wine lists. 2009 was a great vintage for Pinot Noir in both regions, and the wines taste great, but if you see a 2007 or 2008 Pinot Noir that might be your best bet in terms of finding the wine that is the best value and tasting. Restaurants want to move the 2007 and 2008 Pinots off their lists to make room for the 2009 and 2010’s, and from a taste profile, the wines have settled with some bottle age. In terms of Cabernet and Merlot based wines, we recommend you keep an eye out for wines from 2004 to 2007.

The one exception where vintage does matter is for wines from Bordeaux. We drink a lot of wines from Bordeaux, and ordering an $80 bottle of Bordeaux from the 2005, 2006, 2008 or 2009 vintages is not your best bet. Our rule with Bordeaux is that it is not worth drinking the wines unless they are 8 to 10 years old. The one exception would be if you see a wine from the 2007 vintage. This was considered an off vintage in Bordeaux and the wines are approachable at a younger age. Below is an example of a 2007 Bordeaux that is on EPIC Roasthouse’s list, and we consider this to be an exceptional value. It is the second wine from Chateau Lagrange.

2007 Les Fiefs de Lagrange, St. Julien
Retail Price: $28 at Bevmo
Rating: Wilfred Wong 85 to 87

• $55 at EPIC Roasthouse | 1.9x | TOP PICK

Vintage Description from Wine Spectator 85 Points – Drink: Inconsistent; look to top names for delicacy and balance.

85 – 87 Points Wilfred Wong: A red fruited baby, the easy drinking ’07 Les Fiefs de Lagrange shows fine balances and style; light yet persistent and beautiful in the finish; well done.

Tip #6 – Wines by the Glass

Before we explain our approach to ordering wines by the glass, we want to encourage people to try new wines when ordering by the glass. Restaurants often times have some interesting varietals that you might not otherwise try, and this is a great opportunity to branch out. Explain to your server that you are torn between the 2010 Foxen, Chenin Blanc and the 2009 Franciscan, Chardonnay, and they are more than likely going to offer you a free taste of the Chenin Blanc.

Wines by the glass are usually big money makers for the restaurants, and that is good because restaurants need to make a profit so that they can pay their workers and stay in business. The rule of thumb is that a restaurant is going to sell four to five glasses of wine per bottle.

If you are ordering a wine by the glass, we highly encourage you to ask when the bottle was opened. If the bottle has been open from the previous night, then ask them to open a new bottle.

What you should do is look for a wine that is sold by the glass and bottle, and then multiply the price by the glass by 4x, and it should be less than the price by the bottle. Let’s look at some examples.

Example 1

Delamotte, Brut, Champagne, Non-Vintage
Price by the Glass | $18
Price by the Bottle | $78

In this example, the by the glass price is a good deal because you are essentially getting five glasses of wine for the price of four. By the glass price of $18 x 4 = $72.

Delamotte, Brut, Non-Vintage
Retail Price: $37 at K&L Wine Merchants
Rating: Wine Enthusiast 92

• $78 at Wayfare Tavern | 2.1x

92 points Wine Enthusiast: There is good bottle age here the wine full and ripe with an integrated dosage that is relatively high. Flavors of sweet pastry go with white nectarines and pears. It’s so deliciously balanced, finishing with a soft, fresh aftertaste. (12/09)

Example 2

2008 The Ojai Vineyard, Santa Barbara County, Syrah
Price by the Glass | $15
Price by the Bottle | $52

In this example, the by the glass price is not as good a deal as the example above. By the glass price of $15 x 4 = $60.

2008 The Ojai Vineyard, Santa Barbara County, Syrah
Retail Price: $22 at K&L Wine Merchants & $25 via Wine-Searcher
Ratings: See comments below

• $52 at Wayfare Tavern | 2.2x

Vintage Description from Wine Spectator 95 to 98 Points – Drink or Hold: A tough start ended with glorious wines statewide, rivaling 2007 for complexity, depth and finesse.

According to Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate: “The 2008 Syrah presents a decidedly masculine expression of blue and black fruit. Deceptively medium in body, the Syrah shows excellent depth and balance. This is mostly Bien Nacido Syrah, with small amounts of Grenache and Mourvedre. Anticipated maturity: 2013-2023.” (08/11)

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