Wine explorers of any level can make dining out an opportunity to expand their wine experiences.
The more adventurous may leave wine choices to a server or sommelier. If properly trained, restaurant employees can help customers find a satisfactory match for almost any dish.
“When people come here and find out there’s a certified sommelier, they let you drive,” said Erick Cadena, general manager of Villa Creek in Paso Robles. “I try my hardest to make them as comfortable as possible.”
Cadena has studied for four years with the Court of Master Sommeliers (www.mastersommeliers.org), an organization founded in 1977 to improve beverage service standards in restaurants. There are four levels of exams, blind tastings and tutelage with a master before an individual earns the title “master sommelier.”
At Villa Creek, Cadena shares wines he’s selected with the waiters. Every Friday before dinner service, they have a blind tasting of newer wines by the glass or others they’re likely to be serving. This helps wait staff know how to suggest a particular wine based on a diner’s preferences.
“(Blind tasting) takes the bias away,” Cadena said. “One year you can like a certain cabernet from a certain producer and the next year you may not. We’re looking at the wine for what it is.”
Across the street at Bistro Laurent, maitre d’ Ian Adamo — also a certified sommelier — said nearly 90 percent of his diners call upon his expertise when ordering.
“My job is not to sell them a bottle of wine,” Adamo says. “I just want to help them find the right wine. We don’t want to intimidate anybody. We can’t afford a lot of the wines on the list ourselves.”
But with wine sales slowing, especially for higher-priced brands, wine lists boast higher quality at lower prices these days.
“Anything above $60 (a bottle) has taken a hit. There are a lot of wines that have come down into the $40 to $60 range,” Cadena says. Meanwhile a bottle formerly priced at $38 might cost $16 today. “It’s a trickle down.”
To make ordering wine enjoyable, local wine directors offer these tips:
Know your likes: Beyond categories like “red” or “white,” learning common vocabulary for your preferences will help your server help you. Terms like “full-bodied,” “fruit-forward,” “earthy” or “raspberry” are specific and useful. Even a particular grape varietal, such as zinfandel, can result in dramatically different wines depending on location and style of its producer. Visit tasting rooms and read descriptions of wines you like. Wineries often put tasting notes on the Internet, another good place to find vocabulary for favorite wines.
Name your budget: You won’t enjoy drinking a wine if you’re worried you can’t afford it. Be honest about how much you want to spend.
Ask to taste: Most restaurants serious about wine won’t hesitate to pour a one-ounce sample of anything served by the glass. If not pleasing, that discussion can lead to something more suitable. Some restaurants are generous with samples, but beware asking for more than two tastes.
Ask questions: Depending on the sophistication of a restaurant’s wine program, servers may not only share recommendations, a little prompting could uncover entertaining tidbits about the producer, region or style. If a wine is recommended with a certain dish, ask why to understand general approaches to pairing.
Try several wines: Look for opportunities to try several wines with one meal. One is a prix fixe menu. The Cass House Inn and Restaurant, for example, serves five-course dinners, which can be paired with personally selected wines. Villa Creek offers a flight, or a menu of wines by theme. Flights may focus on wines of a certain producer, region or style and pours are smaller than a full glass.
Consider half bottles: If you can’t settle on a single wine, order two half bottles for variety. This can also be a good alternative to ensure freshness, rather than ordering by the glass, in restaurants that are less than wine savvy.
Order wine first: Rather than choosing a wine for the dish, select the wine first. After tasting it, order food suggested by its flavors. For example, if it reminds you of mushrooms, look for dishes with similar earthy tastes.
Most of all, restaurateurs say, ordering wine shouldn’t be stressful.
“Learn as you go,” said Chris Battles, owner of Morro Bay Wine Seller and wine director for Windows on the Water. “You don’t have to educate yourself like it’s a job."