If you’ve ever opened the bible-sized wine list at a high-end restaurant and thought, “maybe I’ll just have a beer,” you are not alone. Wine lists can be intimidating, even for seasoned wine enthusiasts. Not only are you tasked with selecting a wine that everyone at the table will enjoy, you want to find something that will pair well with the food and provide good value for the money. Should you just pick a wine with a familiar-sounding name and hope it all works out? We asked three Napa Valley winemakers and vintners to share their tips for unraveling the mystery of restaurant wine lists and finding a great bottle every time.
Brooke Shenk, winemaker at St. Supéry Estate Vineyards and Winery, Rutherford
What makes a great wine list?
For me, a great wine list has at least some names of quality producers that I am familiar with, and a variety of wines from all over the world. I don’t need a million options, but I don’t just want a California list or an Italian list. I would like to have choices.
What are some of your favorite Napa Valley wine lists?
Here in Napa Valley, Bistro Don Giovanni, Morimoto and Torq do a great job at selecting a list that works well with the restaurant cuisine and Chef specialties.
What do you do when faced with a list full of unfamiliar wine choices?
My go-to white wine is sauvignon blanc, so I will usually opt for a sauvignon blanc, even if I don’t recognize the name of the producer. With reds, I will first think about what I am eating and decide which variety I am looking for. Then if I don’t know the wines, I will look at the appellation to judge whether or not I want to try the wine.
How do you find good values and hidden gems?
Merlot hasn’t been a popular wine since the movie ‘Sideways,’ but there are some beautiful wines being made from the variety. I think merlot is starting to make a comeback, but it is still a good value compared to cabernet sauvignon prices. It can also pair with a lot of different types of food. Another good place to find hidden treasures is in the “interesting whites” or “interesting reds” section, if the restaurant lists wines in that category.
What if you still need help deciding?
Sommeliers are a great source of information. They are very familiar with the menu and know their wines, so they can usually offer a great pairing with the food you’re ordering. The best strategy is to figure out what you and your guests are ordering, then discuss it with the sommelier to help determine the best wine.
Brett deLeuze, president of ZD Wines, Napa
How can you spot a great wine list?
It all begins with a high-quality by-the-glass list. It should have a combination of familiar and less-familiar brands, varietals and a range of price-points. This is an indication of a restaurant’s commitment to its wine program.
What about a list of wines by the bottle?
I personally enjoy in-depth wine lists that showcase many varietals—both current releases and older vintages—with selections from around the world.
Do you have any favorite lists, locally?
In the Napa Valley, the entire restaurant industry puts a lot of time and energy into developing its wine lists, primarily showcasing local wineries, so all are noteworthy!
What’s the best strategy when asking a restaurant staff member for a recommendation?
Tell the sommelier or server about the style of wine you’d like to drink, and give some descriptors. For example, a big, rich wine or one that is leaner and more structured. Are you looking for sweet or dry, oaky or unoaked, fruity or complex? This information will help the staff point you to a bottle selection. Restaurants that care about their wine programs will almost always have someone on staff that is excited about wine, and is eager to share hidden gems.
Neil Bernardi, vice president of winemaking, Duckhorn Wine Co., St. Helena
What do you look for in a wine list?
I really appreciate a list with diversity in wine style, origin and price. A great wine list offers value at every level to consumers looking for old favorites, new finds or obscure wines that don’t make it to major markets. Perhaps as important is an enthusiastic sommelier who can passionately speak to the wines on the list.
How do you find under-the-radar wines and good values?
Regions that neighbor the classics are always good sources of value. Rully, on the Côte Chalonnaise, just south of the famous Côte-d’Or, is producing some great chardonnays that come at a fraction of the price of Meursault or Puligny Montrachet. Additionally, Cru Bourgeois wines from Bordeaux can be excellent values. Alternatively, try wines from more obscure but up-and-coming regions, like Assyrtiko from Greece or dry Furmint from Hungary.
Which restaurant lists are among your favorites?
La Ciccia in San Francisco is down the block from my grandmother’s house, and it is a wonderful experience, both for the unique Italian food and the excellent Italian wine list. Bern’s Steakhouse in Orlando, Florida, has a legendarily massive wine list—it’s more of a tome really—and wine selections are both broad and deep. The last time I ate there I had the chance to taste a Madeira from the 1800s that just happened to be open.
Here are some additional clues for finding a delicious wine on any restaurant list:
Weight: Restaurants will often list the wine options in each category from lightest bodied to heaviest (ask your server if you’re not sure of the organization). Delicate wines can be overpowered by bold dishes, and bold wines can overwhelm lighter dishes. Balance is what you’re after.
Vintage: If a list presents multiple vintages of a certain wine, ask your server to describe the differences. A cold, rainy growing season will usually produce leaner, more acidic wines, while a hot year will often result in riper wines.
Price: If you have a specific price-point in mind, go ahead and say so. Offering a price range—say $50-$80—helps the sommelier zero in on the best options in that category.