Learn about wine

15. In a restaurant

By Paul Fisher

Generally speaking, the reason we go out to a restaurant is to have a nice time; convivial atmosphere, good company, great food… and then there’s the wine. How you prioritise those elements can depend on a number of things – the choice of wine, unless you happen to be a bit of a fanatic, usually comes low on the list. But ending up with a wine that you don’t like, or that clashes with the flavours of the food, can be a real dampener on the occasion.

Ask the sommelier

I’ve had many disasters when I’ve been left to choose wine. More often than not through trying too hard to be clever, not recognising any wines on the list and not wanting to seem un-knowledgeable in front of my date/goddaughter/wine colleague etc. My advice to you (if only I had listened to it myself more often) is to ask the sommelier.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine, on her first day working as a waitress in a trendy Notting Hill restaurant, was asked by a customer what the house wine was like. Being a nice, honest girl she explained that, although the staff were told to recommend it, they all thought the wine tasted pretty awful. Unfortunately her customer turned out to be a columnist from the Evening Standard who wrote a very witty piece about the exchange in the following day’s paper.

The reason I’m telling you this story is that my friend did the right thing (fortunately her boss had the foresight to see that too). She felt it was her responsibility to point the customer to a wine that she knew they would like, but that also fell within what they were hoping to pay. That is the mantra that all good sommeliers should work by, and in my experience it usually turns out to be the case.

So overcome your reservations and think of the sommelier as your friend. A sommelier in a good restaurant has a very sought-after job and these guys really have to really know their stuff. Additionally, he, or she, has certainly tasted most of the wines on the list and was probably involved in the choosing them in the first place. Helping the customers find the bottle that is going to bring the best out of the food is what they love to do. I’ve had some really wonderful surprises by following their advice: a great red from the Rhône with cod was a particularly successful combo that I would never have experienced if left to choose for myself.

When the choice is yours

Of course, not all restaurants have sommeliers, and you’ll still want to make a good choice. What you need are some tips, pointers and insight into how wine works for restaurants:

  • The average markup in a restaurant (compared to retail prices) is about 150 - 200%. Therefore, if you see a wine for £15 on a restaurant list, it’s the sort of wine you could buy in the supermarket for £5 a bottle. Think about the kind of quality you want and adjust your financial expectations accordingly.
  • At the upper end, restaurants usually become more generous with margins, so fine wines are actually relatively better value.
  • Avoid well-known regions which attract a premium. The best value wines I’ve had in a restaurant have been from Alsace. Pinot Blanc is usually especially cheap for the quality.
  • Red wines are often served too warm in restaurants. If this happens to you, ask for an ice bucket and chill them down. It makes an enormous difference.

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