By Derek M. Lavallee - 02/12/09 05:34 PM EST
Valentine’s Day dinner dates are high-stakes romantic occasions. Ordering the perfect wine can and should enhance the evening.
Gastronomic globalization has transformed wine lists into wine atlases, inviting your palate anywhere on the planet grapes grow. While it is nice to have the option of drinking Turkmenistan’s finest, or choosing among 20 sauvignon blancs from New Zealand, navigating a leather-bound list thicker than the stimulus bill is intimidating.
What follows is advice that will alleviate your wine-ordering anxiety and perhaps impress your date.
First, do some research. Restaurants post their menus and wine lists online. Identify a few bottles in your price range and learn enough about them to ask your waiter or sommelier an informed question. For example: “I know Oregon pinot noirs can range from light and fruity to dense and earthy. Can you describe the differences between the ones on your list?”
As soon as you are handed the wine list, order two flutes of the house champagne or sparkling wine. You won’t feel as pressured to make a hasty decision on the wine, and the bubbly will put you both at ease.
Rely on the experts. As a former sommelier, I was dumbfounded when someone ordered a wine they knew nothing about rather than ask for advice. What else do you spend $40 to $100 or more on that is a complete shot in the dark, let alone something you’re going to consume? It would be like ordering a uniquely expensive entrée described on the menu only as “food.” Indicate how much you want to spend. To avoid an awkward guessing game or potentially embarrassing your date by verbalizing the amount, casually point to a wine at that price point on the list and your sommelier will drive the conversation from there.
When handed the cork, do not smell it. It is given to you as further proof of the wine’s provenance. Corks are printed with the vineyard or winery name as reassurance the wine was not nefariously re-bottled. Smelling the cork is as appropriate and instructive as licking the label on the bottle. Put it in your pocket as a nice keepsake of the evening.
As the server pours you a taste, ask them to share it with your date as well. It’s a nice modern gesture and can be a subtle bonding moment.
Many people take on one of two extreme personas when facing the pressure of tasting the first pour. The Shooter is so uncomfortable with the process that he knocks back the wine like a life-saving antidote. The Performance Artist takes the opposite approach, dramatically swirling, sniffing and sipping for far too long.
Don’t be either of these characters. Remember that tasting the first pour is not a time to identify and savor all of the wine’s nuances. Rather, it is quick validation the wine is not spoiled. The whole process should take less than 30 seconds.
I’m often asked how one knows the difference between wine that is fundamentally flawed and one that is just not very good. To paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you’ll know it when you taste it. Your reaction will be less like “It tastes a lot different than the cabernet sauvignon I usually drink” and more like “I don’t want to look, but I think there is a decomposing mouse in this bottle.”
A final thought about Valentine’s Day and wine: Avoid gimmicky holiday-themed bottles. Most of them rely on the marketing hook to compensate for the poor quality of the product. If you are struck by Cupid’s commercial arrow, I recommend wines from Saint Amour, the northernmost wine-growing region in Beaujolais, France. The crushed pink granite soil (a coincidence) produces lush, well-structured, food-friendly reds. You can find quality examples from Georges Dubeouf and Joseph Drouhin starting at $15 retail.
Derek M. LaVallee, certified wine buff, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.