How to Properly Order Wine at a Restaurant

redDining out should be an enjoyable, relaxing experience. That goes for ordering the wine, too.

But as consumers, we always need to keep in mind that a restaurant is a business, and a tough one at that. For many fine-dining establishments, being able to make money by selling wine is a critical factor in being able to keep the doors open.

Restaurants mark up wine prices for several reasons, including the storage space required, the need to occasionally replace broken glassware, and the expense of keeping an experienced sommelier or wine steward on staff.

A good wine list will feature a number of choices that match well with the various entrees on the restaurant’s menu. It also should feature a range of prices.

The longer the list, the more daunting it can be for someone who is just getting into wine.

Here are four tips to help you make a selection that will delight your palate without depleting your wallet…

  1. Ask the sommelier, wine steward or server for advice.  Someone on staff should be familiar with both the menu and the wine list, and know which wines pair nicely with which dishes. If your server doesn’t seem to be well informed, ask if there might be someone else who can help. In some cases, it might be the owner of the establishment.
  2. Tell the restaurant staffer about some of the wines you’ve enjoyed in the past. This will help them identify wine types and styles you’ll probably like. Also let them know about your price range.
  3. If you’d prefer to bring along your own special bottle, be sure to call ahead to see if the restaurant allows wine to be brought in. If so, ask about the corkage fee, and make sure the wine is not on the restaurant’s wine list. If a restaurant is willing to let customers bring their own wine, it should not be a wine that is on the list.
  4. When all else fails, follow this protocol: Determine the type of wine you want to have, and then order the second least-expensive bottle in that category from the restaurant’s list. Many restaurants include low-end bottlings in the various categories for those customers who read the list from right to left (i.e., price shoppers). But through the years, I’ve found that, in most cases, all the other wines in a given category are quite good — so there’s no need to order the most expensive bottle.


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Posted in Editor's Journal

What’s the Difference Between Red Wine and White Wine?

redwhiteWait a minute! That sounds like an answer from the “Stupid Questions” category on Jeopardy.

Of course, the obvious answer is the color, but perhaps not so obvious is how the colors come to be.

It all begins with the grapes, and the grapes used to make red wine typically are darker and have more pigment.

What happens after the grapes are harvested plays another critical role in the ultimate color of the wine to be made from them.

For white wines, the grapes are pressed in order to squeeze as much juice out of them as possible, and then that juice is fermented.

For red wines, the same pressing process is used, but it most cases, that juice is fermented along with the skins of the grapes and sometimes even the stems. Once fermentation is completed, the solid materials are removed. But by that time, they have done their job: They have given the wine a darker color, not to mention, in most cases, a richer body.

Here are three more generalizations about the differences between red wines and white wines:

  1. Red wines retain more tannins, which is what makes them taste “dry.” It’s the lack of tannins in white wines that make them lighter and more refreshing on the palate.
  2. Because of their bolder flavors, red wines make great pairing partners for beef, pork, aged cheeses and even dark chocolate. Because of their lighter, more fruitful flavors, white wines pair beautifully with fish, poultry and fruit-based dishes and glazes.
  3. Generally speaking, red wine offers more health benefits that white wine because it contains heart-healthy polyphenols and antioxidants. However, among people who are sensitive to tannins, white wine is the better choice for avoiding headaches, studies have shown.


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Posted in Wine and Health, Wine FAQ

Why We Love Washington and Oregon Wines

Last fall, the Mrs. and I spent some time in the state of Washington. It was for the waorpurpose of seeing and hearing Al Stewart perform his iconic album, “Year of the Cat,” from start to finish, backed by a wonderful band from Chicago, The Empty Pockets.

But before the show, we spent the day visiting wineries in the area.

Just this past weekend, we returned from a trip to Oregon. It was for the purpose of seeing the fabulous band that played at our wedding, Incendio, provide the soundtrack for a University of Oregon ballet performance of “Zorro.”

The next day, we visited three wineries in the area.

Whenever we travel for music, we try to include some wine in the mix. Whenever we travel for wine, we try to include some music in the mix. Wine and music are two of our passions.

And Washington and Oregon are two of our favorite wine states because of the diversity of outstanding wines they produce.

According to the Washington State Wine trade group, Washington ranks second nationally for premium wine production, and more then 50,000 acres are planted to vinifera grapes. More than 40% of these vines have been planted in the last 10 years as the industry rapidly expands.

Oregon, likewise, is a world-class wine region with more than 700 wineries and more than 1,000 vineyards growing 72 grape varieties.

It’s that last statistic that is so appealing to us — the large number of varieties that are planted. Lots of people think of Oregon as a one-variety state (that variety being Pinot Noir), but nothing could be further from the truth.

Every time we go to a Washington or Oregon we encounter something surprising, whether it’s an unexpected varietal bottling or a magnificent blend of multiple varieties. Last week, we even met one Oregon vintner who makes wine exclusively from grapes grown in Washington.

How could you not fall in love with two states so diverse in their wine?

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Posted in Wine Region Profiles

Tasty Wine Pairings for Girl Scout Cookies

My daughter was a Girl Scout, and during those years I sold a lot of boxes of cookies to gscookiecolleagues on behalf of her troop.

I have been returning the favor ever since, purchasing boxes from friends, relatives and even neighbors who stake out positions in front of the grocery store, making it virtually impossible to walk by without buying a box or two… or three.

Not wanting to simply consume empty calories, I usually try to find a nice wine pairing for each box we buy. Over the years, I’ve found 11 types of Girl Scout cookies that have good to great wine partners. These aren’t merely pairings to try; they are pairings that I have tried and can recommend…

* S’mores — crispy graham cookie double dipped in crème icing and finished with a scrumptious chocolaty coating.

Recommended wine pairing: Tawny Port or Moscato d’Asti.

* Thin Mints — round, mint-flavored cookies with a delicious chocolaty coating.

Recommended wine pairing: Napa Valley Syrah or Australia Shiraz.

* Peanut Butter Patties (a.k.a. Tagalongs) — a layer of peanut butter with a rich chocolaty coating.

Recommended wine pairing: Tawny Port or Amarone.

* Do-si-dos (a.k.a. Peanut Butter Sandwich) — sandwich cookies with crisp and crunchy oatmeal on the outside and creamy peanut butter inside.

Recommended wine pairing: Sauternes (the sweet wine of Bordeaux).

* Savannah Smiles — zesty, lemon-flavored cookies dusted with powdered sugar.

Recommended wine pairing: dry Riesling or rosé sparkling wine.

* Toffee-tastic — rich, buttery cookies with sweet, crunchy golden toffee bits.

Recommended wine pairing: A traditional France Rhone red or Australia blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.

* Caramel delites (a.k.a. Samoas) — caramel and toasted coconut-covered.

Recommended wine pairing: Tawny Port.

* Shortbread (a.k.a. Trefoils) — classic shortbread cookies made in the shape of the Girl Scouts’ iconic trefoil.

Recommended wine pairing: Prosecco or a Burgundian-style Chardonnay.

* Lemonades — tangy lemon-icing-topped shortbread cookies.

Recommended wine pairing: Sauvignon Blanc or Italy Pinot Grigio.

* Thanks-A-Lot — tasty shortbread cookies with fudge on the bottom.

Recommended wine pairing: Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

* Trios — chocolate chips nestled in a gluten-free peanut butter/oatmeal cookie.

Recommended wine pairing: Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes

How to Chill Wine in a Hurry

Guests have arrived unexpectedly.whitewine

You’d like to share a nice bottle of white wine with them.

But there’s a problem. The only white wine you have on hand is sitting on your wine rack, and it needs to be chilled down a bit prior to opening, pouring and enjoying.

What to do?

You could put the bottle in the freezer for about 10 to 15 minutes, but if your freezer is like mine, there’s barely enough room for what’s in there already, let alone a bottle of wine.

A better option is to grab a bucket — you DO have a Champagne bucket on hand for this type of emergency, don’t you? — and fill it about a third full with ice, and a third full with water.

Then place the bottle in the ice water.

About 5 to 10 minutes later, the wine will be ready to serve.

Remember, the idea is not to make the wine ice cold. The colder a wine is, the less possible it is to taste all of its flavors. Rather, you want the wine to be cool, so it’s both refreshing and flavorful.

Your guests will thank you for it.


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Posted in Wine FAQ

Tricks for Avoiding a Wine Headache

Nobody likes to be in pain, especially when that pain can be avoided. We certainly don’t headachewant to deal with pain that’s caused by something as inherently enjoyable as drinking wine.

Obviously, the best way to avoid a wine-induced headache is to follow the guidelines associated with all alcoholic beverages: Don’t drink too much. Exactly how much will vary by body type, age and other factors. You basically need to get to know your body and your personal tolerance level.

Then there’s the histamine headache, which impacts some people more than others. Studies have shown that consumption of aged beverages and food — such as wine and dry-aged beef — prompts our bodies to release histamines that create allergy-type symptoms. One way to avoid a histamine-caused headache is to take a histamine blocker prior to consuming the aged food or drink.

Some people get a headache when they combine wine with a sugary dessert. It’s not a scientific computation, but for many people, alcohol + sugar = headache. For them, the best idea is to simply skip dessert — or take dessert home to enjoy later with water or another non-alcoholic beverage.

But the best tip of all — one I’ve been sharing with fellow wine lovers and wine classes for years — is to hydrate while drinking wine. When I’m at a restaurant and order a glass or bottle of wine, I also ask the server for a glass of water and request that they come back to the table often with more water.

The general rule for keeping hydrated and avoiding a headache caused by dehydration is one glass of water for each glass of wine. My personal rule is two glasses of water for each glass of wine.

As I like to ask people, “Would you rather have to get up once during the middle of the night, or possibly have to deal with a headache?”


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Posted in Wine and Health

Wine Perception: The Differences Between Flavor and Taste

As a writer, one thing you learn, above all else, is that words matter.taste

Early in my career, I turned in a story that included the sentence, “Over 1,500 people were in attendance.” The editor circled the word “over” and jotted a note in the margin: “Over means above. The correct terminology for this is ‘more than.’”

As a wine writer, the words I see most people confuse are taste and flavor. On the surface, they would seem to be synonymous. They are not.

One way of putting it is that taste is a part of flavor. The other important part is aroma. If you prefer equations, look at it this way:

Taste + Aroma = Flavor

The tongue is the No. 1 receptor of taste, but other areas of the mouth also are involved in sending information to the brain for “processing.”

The role of aroma in the equation should not be minimized. In fact, there is research that suggests aroma may play an even more important role than taste in determining a wine’s flavor.

If you’d like to read more about this topic, the University of Florida has a Center for Smell and Taste, and provides summaries of a great deal of research on its website.

They say that perception is reality, and that’s probably why a single wine can be perceived by 10 different people in 10 different ways.

That’s not a good thing or a bad thing; it’s simply part of the mystery and allure of wine.

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Posted in Wine in the Glass

Counting Calories: Why Red Wine Drinkers Should Not Fret

We are almost through the second month of the year, but that doesn’t mean everyone healthyhas broken their New Year’s Resolution to lose weight. That means a lot of people are watching their calories.

The good news for lovers of red wine is that your favorite adult beverage should not be considered a deterrent to losing weight.

Most of the calories come from the alcohol level. Using a standard 5-ounce glass of wine as a barometer, a wine with an alcohol level of 12% has only about 91 calories. If the wine has an alcohol level of 15%, the calorie count is around 119.

So, if you keep your serving size to 5 ounces, and you limit your number of servings, there’s no reason red wine can’t be part of your “new diet” for the “new year.”

Here are two other ideas for making sure red wine remains your waist’s friend, rather than its enemy:

  1. When dining out, share a glass. Order one glass of wine and two glasses, and share the wine with your dining partner. That will cut the calorie count in half. Drinking wine when dining out is more of a social activity anyway, and sharing the same wine will give you one more thing to talk about.
  2. Use the wine to make a spritzer. You also can cut the calorie intake by mixing your red wine with club soda — which has zero calories. Obviously, we would not recommend this for your $100 bottle of Bordeaux, but with your everyday “house wine,” it’s a good way to have a satisfying, refreshing beverage with half the calories. Add a few orange slices, and you have a homemade sangria worthy of the finest tapas of Barcelona.
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Tweeting About Wine: 5 Accounts Worth Following

On any given day, 100 million people are tweeting, reading tweets or both. There are 330twitter million people who are considered “monthly active Twitter users.”

Everyone who uses the social media platform has people or organizations they follow, and in the world of wine, there are lots of people tweeting on a regular basis.

I don’t tweet myself, but I do follow six who do. Here’s who they are, and why I enjoy them…

* JasonBWise — I follow Jason Wise not because he’s a wine expert, but because he’s one of the people behind the documentary, “Sommelier.” Every so often, because he travels to so many cool places, he’ll post photos from various wine regions. I never get tired of looking at grapevines.

* Levi_opens_wine — If you’re into podcasts, you may know Levi Dalton from his “I’ll Drink to That!” podcast. For truncated versions of his podcast observations, follow him on Twitter.

* LauraCatena — If you enjoy Malbec from Argentina, Laura Catena is among the people you have to thank. She’s a fourth-generation vintner and a strong promoter of the region that produces most of Argentina’s Malbec: Mendoza. Just as the late Robert Mondavi helped put California’s Napa Valley on the map, Catena has worked tirelessly to make Mendoza… and its Malbec… famous.

* EricaSimov — My opinion is that if you really want to learn about wine, you must read Eric Asimov’s New York Times wine column on a regular basis. Period. He’s a go-to source for important information, trends and dependable reviews.

* RandallGrahm — I met Randall Grahm when he was first gaining a reputation for his then-unusual blends using then-lesser-known grape varieties. The esoteric essays he wrote about various wine-related topics were so different from anything else available in the world of wine. Today, he shares his off-beat thoughts on Twitter.

Of course, if you’re looking to add some wine-related content to your Twitter feed, don’t forget VinesseWines.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Secrets Revealed: How to Read a Wine Label

There has always been a bit of mystery surrounding the labels that adorn wine bottles.readlabel

First and foremost, they are designed to attract the attention of consumers — to stand out on supermarket or liquor store or wine shop shelves that are lined with other bottles from other producers. That’s where creative artwork, font selection and overall design come in.

But the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover also applies to wine. The most beautifully designed wine label may be attached to a bottle with only average wine inside, while a label with virtually no “curb appeal” may be attached to a bottle with a world-class wine inside.

That means it’s important to be able to not only look at a wine label, but read it — and understand what the various verbiage means.

There used to be distinct differences between American wine labels and European wine labels. To an extent, there still are. But in recent years, primarily since the establishment of the European Union, greater sameness in the labels has emerged.

As an example, you rarely, if ever, would see the name of the grape used to make the wine on a European label. The wines would be identified by region, and specific regions were connected with specific varieties.

“White Burgundy” equated with Chardonnay, “White Bordeaux” with Sauvignon Blanc (often with some Semillon blended in), Red Burgundy with Pinot Noir, and Red Bordeaux with various blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a few other varieties.

In the United States, on the other hand, a vast majority of the wines are labeled by grape variety. That said, it’s still important to note the region shown on the label because specific grape varieties fare better when grown in specific regions.

Let’s say you’re faced with a shelf of Chardonnays, and you’re not familiar with any of the brand names. If you can find one with a regional designation of “Russian River Valley” or “Carneros” or “Monterey County,” to cite three examples, you can be confident that the quality of the wine will be high. For Cabernet Sauvignon, “Napa Valley” or “Alexander Valley” are among the regions that can be depended upon for quality.

Each variety has regions in which it shines, so if you get to know those regions, you have a great chance of selecting a really good bottle of wine.

Finally, don’t ignore the vintage. While many wines can be aged for years or even decades, most are ready to drink and enjoy with a year or two of their vintage. As a general rule, I drink white wines no later than five years past their vintage date (which means I’m finishing up my remaining 2012 and 2013 whites now). I follow the same basic rule for reds, but I may allow a few Cabernets to age a little longer before I open them.

Learn the grape varieties associated with specific regions and pay attention to the vintages, and you’ll be well on your way to understanding the most important information found on a wine label.

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Posted in Wine Tips
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