The first thing that you need to know is there's a 99% chance that the server that dropped off that wine list knows as much or less about it than you do. I am not saying that servers are not intelligent, I was one, I married one. What I am saying is that there is a lot of turn over in the service industry and 'career servers' are becoming harder and harder to find in a place that the ticket price is under $50 a plate.
The reason servers are not totally in tune with the list is because of training. To understand training you need to understand how the wine list was constructed. Wine lists are put together three ways. The first way is by the wine sales rep. This is usually the very generic wine list. The sales rep often (but not always) selects the best sellers or selfishly, the wines THEY need to push to hit their sales goals. These circumstance are happening less and less but still certainly exist.
The second method is where a manager or owner who is not too familiar with wine puts it together. This is almost always based on margin and price point. When a manager or owner does not know about wine that usually translates in to the fact that they don't care about it either, they are putting one together to shut up one of their regulars. In this instance they usually do wines that are popular, conservatively priced and sometimes they purchase on sale price of the wine distributors are trying to get rid of.
The final way, my favorite way, is when they hire a sommelier or wine expert of some sort to build it. I use to do more of this, now I have two main accounts and I like that because it is easier to maintain and buy new, cool stuff. In this option the expert or aficionado usually selects wines from several wine distributors to accentuate the best or most unique wines from each portfolio. This is usually where the 'phone book wine list' comes in.
Personally I have two lists as I mentioned. The first is a monster, over 200 labels, ranging price points, values, grapes, regions and so forth. This isn't exactly 'phone book' but it can be overwhelming. This is my award winning list, it's comprehensive, it's unique, and it's my pet project. The second list I control is smaller, 25 or so wines. I dumbed it down and then I classed it up. I selected grapes and regions that people were familiar with, things that people could pronounce and things that sold well in the marketplace. Then I selected really classic examples so people felt secure with a sense of typicity in the style. Finally I selected producers that people were NOT familiar with. Super cool values and unique producers are a recipe for success because people are curious. Then when they decide they like it, they talk about it, buy it, and the place that introduced it to them is a hero.
The problem with all three methods of building a wine list is time and money. It costs money and takes time to train a staff, and wine is usually ranks behind company policy and food menu. This is a formula for an overwhelmed server and customer. Some restaurants go out of their way to make sure that their staff is well equipped to answer questions, make suggestions and ease the customer's anxiety about the list. Other places have a wine captain, sommelier or wine steward on hand. That persons job is to make recommendations, pair food and wine, and answer questions. The restaurants with this service usually fetch a higher ticket price.
When there isn't an expert on hand, there isn't enough money to train everyday and you have a big list, that's where we come in to the problem of how not to feel overwhelmed. So here are a few things to do. First, ALWAYS ask you server for a suggestion when you are completely lost. They may not know the whole list but they have a 'go-to' that either the bartender, wine expert or owner told them about. Or perhaps they have tried a bunch and they really like one. This 'go-to' is usually a good seller and it's probably because it's pretty good. So start by asking.
If you get questions like "what do you normally like?" Think about it. What do you like? Name a producer and style or two. "I usually like Kendall Jackson Chardonnay" or "I love the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon". Try to select 'main-stream' labels, not that mailbox at the end of a gravel driveway you found last time you were on the wine trails in California. Think of things you like that have presence at a liquor store, this will ensure the server can find a base point in flavor or style to compare to one of the selections on their list.
If that doesn't work you can always point. That's right, point. When you open the list find a comfortable price point on the menu and when the server comes over, ask for a suggestion and point to a price on the menu you are comfortable with. Explain you are looking for something red, white, sweet or dry like this. Again, make sure you point directly to the price. This is NOT uncouth. I served for years and establishing a comfortable price point is a really important factor when trying to appropriately select a bottle of wine for a customer.
The last thing you can do is pull out your mobile device. There are plenty of online reviews of wine or trade magazine reviews to search through. Select a price and style you like (whether it be grape or region) and look it up. You will see the retail price and know if the place is price gouging. Remember though, almost every restaurant has higher priced than retail. Wine margins are what help keep the doors swinging. It's no different than rum, whiskey, or gin.
The worst thing that can happen in one of these experiences is you feel out of place. But you shouldn't. It's the restaurants responsibility to make your buying experience as pleasurable as possible. As of late 'standard tipping' and the job pool have resulted in some really poor service (you would think a high unemployment rate would give you a better pool to choose from, no. The really good ones are just doing it until they get a job in their field). To flip that though as a consumer do not assume that because we call them servers that they are servants. This is their job and they should be respected, if they give it.
So, now that you know how lists are put together and what to look or ask for I am sending you on a mission. I want you to go out to a place that you normally feel intimidated by the list, or where you normally just order the house wine, and give the wine list a whirl. There is so much cool stuff out there, I encourage you to explore. Ask your server, point to a price, use your phone, whatever, just love what you drink. Life is too short not to enjoy, as I always say, it's your glass, fill it with what you want.
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Cru Wine Specialists