Make sure the wine complements your restaurant meal Don’t be afraid to reject offerings that are tainted or ‘cooked’

Published Friday, October, 4, 2002
by Sara and Monty Preiser

Reviewers’ note: It is rare for one food or wine writer to expressly disagree with another in print, but we were so unimpressed with the Sept. 22, 2002, Palm Beach Post reprint of a Wall Street Journal article on “Wine Country,” that we have to comment.

Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, with whom we often disagree, frequently write the Journal’s wine articles. However, as a rule, we respect the differences in the tastes of people, and so we say nothing. But this widely circulated wine country article, on the other hand, begs for a rebuttal. It is not only off base, but also in a different ballpark from an accurate analysis of certain wineries. To say, as the team does, that Freemark Abbey, Carneros Creek, Geyser Peak, Clos Pegas and Dry Creek are classified as the “Best Wineries in Napa and Sonoma” is simply ludicrous. While some of these wineries do in fact make some good products, we doubt any other wine writer believes they rank in the upper echelon, and we say that there are few, if any, wines made by these wineries that have received scores of 90 or above from any recognized rating entity. Facts are facts.

Wine Etiquette

Few people choose to dine at a restaurant that serves food they don’t like. Fewer still will order food without having some understanding of what they will be served.
And even fewer would accept a dish presented to them if it was not cooked properly, or was spoiled in some manner. To the above, we can all agree, can we not?
That is why we are so often amazed that those who profess to enjoy fine dining, or aspire to learn about it, may be found frequenting establishments that have poor wine lists and/or wine knowledge, choosing wines without any logical basis, and/or accepting a wine even if it is not as it was made to be.
We thought we would discuss how to best enjoy your wine experience in a restaurant, and at the same time, give you information that will make it more comfortable for you to deal with a restaurant – whether its staff is knowledgeable about wine or not.
Let us first take note of the obvious – this is a wine column. Thus, we assume our readers would prefer the option of enjoying a good wine with their meal.
In the same vein, we feel restaurants have an obligation to provide reasonable selections. Unfortunately, while there are an increasing number of restaurants with good wine lists, far too many spend very little time in creating an inventory of any distinction whatsoever.

Bringing your own

We recommend the diner seek out those restaurants with a good list and patronize them. Consult “The Wine Spectator,” use our dining and wine columns, call a restaurant for a fax of its wine list or talk to friends. But check out what the restaurant offers.
After some research, if you don’t like what the establishment where you want to dine offers, call and see if you can bring a bottle of your choosing for a reasonable corkage charge (between $10 and $20). In our area, almost all restaurants of note permit this. If we find one that does not, or charges more than $20, we simply don’t go because management does not understand the industry. It is people who care about wine that they should hope dine at their establishment, and if the restaurant cannot please them in this regard, then the establishment should let them please themselves.
A final two words on taking your own wine. If the restaurant in fact has a nice list and you still bring a special wine of your own, it is extremely bad form to bring one carried by the restaurant. Also, if you have more than two people and the list is reasonable, it is nice to buy one from the restaurant as well.
How can you best ensure you will choose a good bottle if you order at the restaurant? If you have your own ideas of what you want, require that your server show you the year and any other designations (i.e., vineyard) if this information is not on the wine list, no matter how long it takes and no matter how many bottles you have to see. This information should be included on lists, especially when they can easily be printed daily.
After ordering, be sure to check that the wine is exactly what you requested (same year and proper vineyard or appellations) before the bottle is opened. Many errors occur here because a restaurant or its servers may not know wine quality is vastly affected by the year in which, and the place where, the grapes are grown.

Matter of taste

After you taste the wine, if it tastes tainted (about 1 in 15 corks nowadays allow bacteria to seep into the wine) or “cooked” (when a wine is not stored or transported properly, allowing it to become too hot and, thus, taste affected), be sure to call it to the attention of whoever knows the most about wines in the restaurant (you may have to ask).
If you are sure there is a problem, stand your ground and refuse to accept the wine. If you aren’t sure, you may have to accede to the judgment of the restaurant’s expert. By the way, it is not snobbish to smell a cork. If it’s dank or otherwise bad, you needn’t bother to taste.
Once you have the wine you requested, don’t let the server over pour your glass. Some restaurants do this as policy so that you will drink faster and will have to order another bottle to accompany the end of your meal. Most often, there is no unethical purpose, and the uninformed and untrained simply think a glass should be filled.
Take charge and instruct your server how to do it properly if necessary. You don’t want more than a half-full glass so you can swirl and open the wine to the air.
Be sure you drink your wine at the right temperature (see earlier column).
Most importantly, you have to believe wine is like any other product you buy. If it isn’t right, you want it fixed. Forget the so-called “snob” label. You won’t eat a steak that isn’t fresh, and you shouldn’t drink a wine in the same condition. Be steadfast. You’ll enjoy it more.