Friday, June 3, 2011

HOW-TO: Order Wine at a Bar/Restaurant with a Limited Wine List

When there is no wine list, tread with caution. I realized only recently that the main reason I don’t like Chardonnay or Merlot very much boils down to the fact that most bars and restaurants without an extensive wine menu will still offer a red and white wine by the glass (called, “the house wine”)—and it’s typically Merlot and Chardonnay. It’s also typically quite cheap, and almost always tastes that way, too. The Merlot will be hard to drink and will leave a bitter finish, and the Chardonnay will be thick and almost slimy on the tongue, with a somewhat sweet yet tinny taste. Ring a bell? No wonder these grapes have gotten a bad rap over the years—albeit false! Imagine swearing off kissing because you didn’t enjoy your first kiss. You know inherently that, with trial-and-error, you could find a good kiss. Something about the wine industry confuses us, though: I, too, fell into the trap, assuming that a grape was a grape was a grape, or, that Chardonnay and Merlot wines will be pretty much the same. That’s simply not true. I’ve recently been experimenting with both grapes, after a recent trip to Sonoma that proved these grapes can be so much more complex and delicious than ever expected, especially for those of us used to the house wines.
So, when you’re faced with a decision about what to drink at a restaurant/bar without a full wine menu, what do you do? A few considerations:
  1. Accept that wine may be your first choice, but instead order beer. Beer is as diverse an industry as wine, and something I’ve grown to appreciate myself. If you consider yourself someone who avoids beer, ask the bartender for something very light, not hoppy. It’s the beer’s hops that go into beer that give it that yeasty, beer-like taste and make it difficult to drink. And, food accompanies beer quite well, unlike many cocktails.
  2. If you really want a glass of wine, order it with food. It will make it more drinkable. I would not recommend these wines as sipping wines.
  3. Ask for sangria, where the wine will have been mixed with other ingredients including rum and fruit. I’ve never had bad sangria. Just be careful it’s not artificially made with syrups behind the bar. You want something that’s been brewing for hours.
I should add that some bars offer limited, but good, wine selections. How do you know? The wine will be listed alongside its vintage (year) and producer (winery). I give the green light on ordering from such a list. If you don’t have this information, and even if the venue offers more varietals (Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are popular), I would avoid ordering the wine. Of course, experiment a little yourself, see what you like. As we’ve said before, a good wine is one that you personally enjoy, not one that someone else tells you to drink.

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