And then there’s the wine pairing. I usually get the wine pairing option because it can be fun to try many different wines and experience how they pair—and sometimes don’t—with the courses. Another interesting facet is that wine pairings reveal how the sommelier and the chef view the meal. Many times, however, it’s the sommelier’s view because, believe it or not, chefs don’t really think about how wine pairs with their dishes. (One famous chef who shall remain unnamed once told me that he simply drinks Burgundy with most of his meals.)
However, I sometimes miss studying the wine list while I finish the last of my cocktail; thinking about what I might like to try; what my companion might like, and finding just the right bottle to make everything come together. And this is where the rise of the tasting menu with wine pairings correlates with the disappearing sommelier, at least one that is visible and with whom you can have an actual conversation about the wine that interests you for that meal.
I suspect that a lot of diners prefer wine pairings because they are intimidated by wine lists and certainly by the sommelier. And even if that is not the case, then diners are embarrassed to ask for the sommerlier’s help. As you might expect, a lot of us guys would rather ask for directions before asking for help from a sommelier, especially if said request occurs on a first date.
This is unfortunate because a good sommelier is your best friend. The stereotype of the haughty, arrogant stiff, trying to sell you the most expensive bottle is long gone—if it were ever true in the first place. (One of the best sommeliers I’ve ever encountered, as well as the least pretentious and condescending, was Aldo Sohm at Le Bernardin. And if there’s one place you should be intimidated about the wine list and the sommelier, it is Le Bernardin!)
In the same way you should be truthful with your doctor or lawyer, you should also be truthful with your sommelier. Besides, it’s not like the sommelier is going to tell you that you only have six months to live or that your ex-wife is going to get your bass boat and half your 401K!
Also, don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Sometimes red wine goes with fish and chicken (though I don’t think the same can be said for white going with steak – champagne is another story – champagne goes with everything!). Pork, however, can go with white or red. Zinfandel goes very well with barbecue. And when it comes to spicy Asian cuisine, nothing works better than an Alsatian Gewürztraminer.
While the sommelier doesn’t expect you to be an expert, he or she would probably prefer that you know what you like; what you can tolerate; and what you despise. More importantly, however, the sommelier would really prefer that you tell him or her what you like, can tolerate, and what you despise. Be honest, don’t say you like this or that wine because it’s the latest “it” wine. Really, your job is not to impress the sommelier.
Price is another sensitive issue. No one wants to look cheap. As a result, it has been said in certain circles that the worst bottle of wine to order is the second cheapest one on the list. No one wants to appear to be cheap, but then again they don’t want to buy an expensive bottle, so they go with the one just above the cheapest. This is really the bottle the restaurant wants to get rid of. Restaurants can read us like a cheap paperback on this point. Rather than fall into this trap, you should be up front with the sommelier and let him or her know what your price range is. Again, a good sommelier will find something in your price range. And there’s nothing wrong about seeking out value in a wine list.
What I’ve found during the many hours spent in restaurants eating and drinking wine, both high and low, is that, at the end of the day, having the sommelier help you with a wine selection is like a conversation with a friend you’ve not seen in a while. Awkward at first, but by the end of the encounter, you wonder why you don’t meet more often.