Like an ancient Greek scroll of the final exam for advanced quantum physics, wine lists can often be intimidating and unintelligible. Vouvray? Gewürztraminer? If every wine is supposed to have a year, what does “non-vintage” mean?* Even the most adventurous diners can end up feeling like the dunce at the smart kids’ table when presented with an ambitious wine list. (Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. We’ve all been there!)
So, we’re enlisting some of Durham’s foremost wine experts to share some of their tips and tricks for demystifying the almighty wine list. I turned to Michael Maller, general manager at Vin Rouge and beverage director for Mateo, Mothers & Sons and the soon-to-open Saint James Seafood and Oyster Bar, and Arturo Ciompi, who is a four-time winner of the Association of Food Journalists National Writing Award and occasional wine writer for this magazine, The Herald-Sun and Indy Week.
What is the first thing you look at or for in a wine list?
MM The first thing I look for in a wine list is value. If wines, at any price point, aren’t priced fairly, I’ll probably turn to beer. I look for a few wines I know and check the prices.
AC Some restaurants feature wines from one country (France, Spain, Italy, etc.) If that is the case, I look for breadth of selections, hopefully covering most of the country. On more generic lists, I look for wines that are from smaller producers, wines that have a cache that a good server (or sommelier) can expound upon.
Do you pair your wine with your food or vice versa?
AC I go both ways. I often bring wine, and am a huge fan of North Carolina’s BYOB policy. I will pair to the wine if I bring it. I will pair to the food if the wine list is good enough to match my food selection. If it is not, I’ll skip wine altogether.
MM I almost always pick the food first and then take it from there. Occasionally I’ll see a wine that I can’t pass up and keep it in mind as I choose the food.
What are some key questions to ask your waiter or sommelier if you need help?
MM The most important thing is to communicate what you like and what you’re looking for. If you have a wine or type of wine that you love and you want to have something like that, make that clear. If you’re speaking with the person who buys the wine for the restaurant [often the manager, sommelier or beverage director], consider asking what they’re most excited about. You’ll often find it’s a lesser-known wine with lots of character and great value.
AC “Have you tasted this wine?” “Is there someone here tonight who has tasted this wine?” “Do you have more than one bottle of this wine?” [A key question if you end up loving the wine and would like another bottle for the table, or are dining with a large group.] And especially, “Is the vintage of this wine the same as the menu says?”
What restaurants in Durham have your favorite wine lists?
AC Vin Rouge, Mateo, Nana’s, Counting House in the 21c Museum Hotel, Oval Park Grille and Juju.
MM Well I probably shouldn’t say Vin Rouge, Mateo or Mothers & Sons … so, Rue Cler! They offer a lot of gems with some bottle-age that you’re not likely to find anywhere else.
Any final words of advice for navigating a wine list?
MM I think the best way to navigate a wine list is to put yourself in the hands of the professionals at the restaurant. Ask for the person with the greatest knowledge of the list and chat. If you’re at the right place, they’ll be asking you the questions.
AC In most casual restaurants, [a list that divides] wines by type, such as “dry,” “a bit sweet,” “light-bodied” and “full-bodied” can help the consumer. On better wine lists, [asking] a good sommelier is a necessity.
TO SUM UP
Both Michael and Arturo emphasize one key point for wine aficionados and novices alike – always ask questions. The quickest way to an enjoyable wine experience in almost any restaurant is to engage in a conversation with your server, the sommelier or the manager. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know what this grape is” or, “I’ve never tried a wine from Portugal.” These conversations will often lead to a great bottle of wine, and next time that wine list lands on the table, you’ll be armed with a little more knowledge on how to tackle it.
*Vouvray is a region in the Loire Valley of France that produces Chenin blanc almost exclusively. Gewürtztraminer is a grape variety traditionally found in the Alsace region of France as well as Germany, northeast Italy, Switzerland and Asturias, and used to make crisp, dry white wine. Non-vintage, often noted as “NV” on wine lists, refers to a wine made from various harvest years (e.g. 2005, 2006, and 2007 as opposed to just 2006) and is most common in the production of sparkling wines, although non-vintage still wines can also be found.
are great tools for gauging the value of an unfamiliar wine. My favorite is an app called Vivino. Simply scan a restaurant’s wine list with your phone and Vivino will pull up information and ratings on the wines listed. You can also scan labels to find information on a bottle you’ve already ordered, and Vivino will help you track what you’ve had in the past. No more racking your brain for that amazing bottle of Spanish red wine you had last month!