The restaurant's menu is French but to you the wine list might as well be Greek. The waiter is hovering with a bottle, staring at you, waiting for you to do or tell him something. But all you can think about is whether that Christmas wreath your aunt glued together from corks might be worth serious money if all the world's wine is someday bottled with screw caps.
We all have questions about wine, but we don't always want to broach them when they arise at the dinner table. As a public service, Gambit Weekly asked readers to submit their pressing wine questions and then turned these queries over to our source, Deep Cork, for the answers. After consulting some local wine experts and holding a refresher course with a few bottles of Chianti, the results are in. Dear Deep Cork, When a waiter pours a tiny amount of wine in a glass for you to test, how do you deal with this?ÊDo you act like you know what youÕre doing Ñ swish the wine in the glass, smell it, take a mouthful, grimace or not Ñ or do you just down it and get on with the meal? The tableside wine evaluation is a time-honored tradition that serves primarily as a customer's insurance policy on the integrity of the wine. That swishing, sniffing and tasting is all part of the inspection process to make sure the house and the customer both know the selected wine has not been "corked" -- that is, contaminated with a naturally occurring chemical called trichloronanisole that can come from the cork and make the wine taste like a wet newspaper smells -- or be in any other way compromised. "What you want to do is look at the cork for streaking, swirl the wine and smell it to make sure it looks okay and then most people will taste it too," says Steve Russett, sommelier at Emeril's Restaurant. In most cases, the wine will be fine. Nod your assent to the waiter and get on with the meal. Dear Deep Cork, Is it ever acceptable to reject a wine with a simple, ÒI donÕt like it?Ó Like, if a waiter suggests a wine, you accept his suggestion, he brings it to the table, uncorks, you taste and you just donÕt like it. How to handle? If you order the duck, the duck arrives properly cooked but you decide just then that you don't like duck after all, should you send it back and expect not to pay? The wine evaluation described above is not intended as a wine tasting, and strictly speaking, if you select a wine, it is opened and it is not damaged then the restaurant has sold you that bottle of wine. However, seasoned sommeliers say a little diplomacy goes a long way to resolving these situations. "The bottom line is he's the customer, he's spending money and you want to see him come back again," says Patrick Van Hoorebeck, sommelier at Peristyle Restaurant. "So you say, okay, I'm sorry it didn't meet your expectation, let's figure out what would be a better choice." The restaurant is often able to recoup the cost of even an expensive open bottle by selling it by the glass to other customers. Russett at Emeril's says restaurants should be particularly responsive to customers' change of heart when the waiter or sommelier has recommended the bottle in question. "People don't always use the same words to describe wine, so sometimes when they ask for something oaky and they don't like it you have to get down to what they're really asking for," he says.
Dear Deep Cork, YouÕre in a restaurant and you order a wonderful glass of Oregon Pinot Noir. The waiter brings it to you. You sip it and find it vinegary. It is a brand that you have tasted many times before so you know it was poured from a bottle that has been open for a long time. What do you do? You want that Pinot Noir with your dinner.ÊDo you request that he pour you another glass? If so, from a fresh bottle in front of you? At many restaurants, the staff is allowed to down the remnants of opened wines that are sold by the glass so that the next day begins with a fresh stock. Unfortunately for both customers and waiters, this is not always the case and some restaurants and bars will use pumps and various contrivances to extend the life of a bottle, like that one sitting half empty next to your microwave at home since Jazz Fest. It is common practice among seasoned wine drinkers ordering by the glass to ask when a bottle was opened and you should ask too. If you do end up getting an old glass, ask for a replacement from a bottle opened at your table. Dear Deep Cork, I have a Chianti question. What makes a good one? Also, will I embarrass myself if I give Chianti as a gift and it has that basket stuff around the bottle? Long before the film Sideways made it fashionable to beat up on sturdy old Merlot, the Italian red Chianti was the perennial pariah of the wine world. But times have changed and Cedric Martin, owner of the Martin Wine Cellar stores, says Chianti has evolved. "All Chianti has gotten better," he says. "Your basic $6 or $7 bottle of Chianti is perfectly good. If you want to move up, just ask for a Chianti classico which might be $15 and will be several degrees better." And that rustic affectation of the thatched bottle is so rare to find these days that when it is spotted it seems more nostalgic than tacky. Dear Deep Cork, LetÕs say youÕre dining out and order an inexpensive bottle of wine on the menu and get resistance from the waiter. He says a more expensive bottle is better and that the inexpensive one youÕre ordering isnÕt very good. Should you then ask the waiter why they have wine on their list that isnÕt very good? This is the time for you to read between the lines. Does the waiter seem smarmy, just trying to up-sell to raise the bill? Or is the waiter sincerely trying to steer you away from a bad choice? Remember, most waiters aren't in charge of picking a restaurant's wines, so it's not their fault a dud is on the list and your eyes fell on it. In this case, however, the approach seems clumsy either way. "If it really comes across like that, I think it's time for a wine seminar with the staff," says Peristyle's Van Hoorebeck. He says waiters should have a few recommendations at the ready for wines they personally like in various price ranges. "You show the guy something at $30, at $40 and at $50, but you don't have to say the price. They'll look down at the price and make their own decision," he says.
Dear Deep Cork, When I hear someone say a wine Òsmells like vanillaÓ and all I smell is, well, wine, is the person being pretentious or is my nose just not refined? Different people will taste different things and, the status of your allergies notwithstanding, there could be a number of reasons why you don't get wet wool and beeswax from your Chenin Blanc or eucalyptus from your Cabernet Sauvignon when someone else does. "Everyone has different thresholds for different smells," says Martin, of Martin Wine Cellar. "And the more you taste wine the more you notice." Next time you try that wine, be sure to gently swirl it around the glass, which will expose more of the wine to oxygen and release more of its aromatics. When you sip, try holding the wine in your mouth a little longer before swallowing so your taste buds can fully absorb whatever is going on, vanilla flecks, leather, rose petals and all. "What I always tell people, though, is it doesn't really matter as long as you like the wine," Martin says. Dear Deep Cork, If you have friends over for a glass of wine, and you donÕt want to serve cheese, what are some good alternatives? Remember the last time you were at a party with a big, plastic catering tray of cubed cheddar, Swiss and pepperjack? Remember all those other things around the cheese? Most likely, those were pieces of chopped raw vegetables and sliced fruit and in lieu of cheese these do make safe bets for something to nibble on between sips. But you needn't limit yourself to broccoli florets and fanned strawberries. The deli case is full of good ideas. Margie Stoughton, deli manager at Martin Wine Cellar, recommends just about anything you would use on an antipasti plate, including cured meats like salami or prosciutto, roasted vegetables, hearts of palm and even nuts like the lusciously oily Marcona almond. Dear Deep Cork, I hear wines referred to as vintages, and IÕm wondering what makes a vintage? How is a wine classified as a vintage? A wine's vintage indicates the year in which its grapes were harvested. Because growing conditions change from year to year, wines produced in particularly successful years are widely held in higher esteem and that's why you might hear a "vintage year" discussed in venerated terms. Meanwhile, the vast majority of wine produced around the world is made from a blend of grapes harvested from two or more years and is called a nonvintage, sometimes indicated on labels simply as NV. Dear Deep Cork, If you have a glass of wine in the early evening and follow it later with a mixed drink, are you an alcoholic? IÕm asking this for Òa friend.Ó No, Deep Cork is not an alcoholic. But you were asking for a friend. Also, Deep Cork would not follow a glass of wine with a cocktail unless it was Mardi Gras, Christmas time, a birthday or a tough Monday. Be sure to tell your "friend." Dear Deep Cork, Is there really a difference between screw top, cork and faux cork tops for a bottle of wine? I hear that the screw top is fast becoming the way to go. Take it from me, the next time you're stuck in a stalled elevator with a bottle of wine and no corkscrew you'll understand the difference. But for winemakers, the screw cap and the artificial cork are answers to the very real and economically damaging threat of a wine being corked, as discussed earlier. Once, only bottles of the cheapest swill were equipped with screw caps -- stuff you wouldn't even want to drink in a stalled elevator -- but now it is quickly becoming the closure method of choice for winemakers all over the world, even at old school France chateaus. Peristyle's Van Hoorebeck says that in restaurants screw caps make much of the tableside presentation of wine obsolete and some people do miss the tradition that goes along with inspecting the cork and tasting the wine. In the vast majority of cases, however, the only difference for consumers is that with screw cap wine they run no risk of buying a corked bottled. Dear Deep Cork, Now that stemless wine glasses are all the rage, do I have to throw out those thin-stemmed, big-bowled babies I bought on sale after Christmas? Some wines age better than others, and so do some wine accoutrement trends. When it comes to wine glasses, there are classic shapes intended to enhance the bouquet, flavor and overall enjoyment of different types of wine. Those stemless glasses of yours may look very fetching and modern with your Ikea tableware, but by definition they lack the most important design aspect of a wine glass: the stem is there as a handle so the warmth of your hand doesn't affect the temperature of the wine. So don't get rid of those more classically styled glasses just yet. Now, that said, my favorite vessel for sangria is a plastic cup molded in the shape of Darth Vader's helmet and you can take it when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.
Dear Deep Cork, Oftentimes when I am dining out with friends, being the Òlife of the partyÓ that I am, someone at the table will tell me to Òput a cork in it.Ó I never tell them, but I donÕt get what they mean. Is this some sort of dining custom I am not aware of?Ê Why do we cork -- or cap -- a wine bottle to begin with? Of course, it's to keep the valuable contents from being wasted. I can only assume that by suggesting that you "put a cork in it," your dining companions are gently expressing their concern that your wit and wisdom might be flowing out too quickly.