While it may seem pretty easy to figure out how to get first-rate service and the best table at a restaurant (become a regular, spend a lot of money and tip well), it's much harder (and a lot riskier) to find the hidden bargains on a wine list. How, for example, can you tell when a $250 bottle of wine is a better value than one costing $25? As a wine buyer with many years of experience writing lists for restaurants, who's spent even more time hunting for good buys on other people's wine lists, I've come up with the following five near-failproof strategies for finding the real gems, whether they cost $25, $250 or somewhere in between.
Seek Out "Bad" Vintages
One of the first things I learned in creating wine lists was the value of off years, sometimes called "useful" or "restaurant" vintages. Such vintages receive less than stellar press or are overlooked by collectors in a rush to buy great vintages. But the benefits for restaurateurs and their customers are wines that are much more affordable and ready to drink.
Michael Bonaccorsi, the sommelier at Spago Beverly Hills in Los Angeles, is a persuasive proponent of useful vintages. "Retail customers want to buy vintages like 1990 and 1995 Bordeaux," Bonaccorsi says, "but the restaurant diner is more interested in something that's ready to drink. And if you choose carefully with lesser vintages, you definitely get more flavor for your dollar." In such vintages, however, Bonaccorsi sticks to wines from proven producers, such as the 1994 Château Sociando-Mallet ($68), the 1993 Château Cos d'Estournel ($116) and the 1994 Château Tertre-Roteboeuf ($160). But the best buy on his list is the 1981 Château Lafite Rothschild. At $345, it's less than half the price of the famed 1982.
Ask For Help
If I'm handed one of those totally mystifying lists, the kind with dozens or even hundreds of unknown names, I ask to speak with the person in charge of the wine selection. Then I request help. I might seek recommendations in a certain price range or inquire about a favorite grape, such as Pinot Noir. Or if I'm feeling adventurous, I'll search out something unusual. The list created by Larry Stone for Seattle's new Earth & Ocean (operated by my company, Myriad Restaurant Group) features two wines that got my attention: the 1998 Cameroni delle Colline Rosse Pinot Bianco ($29) and the 1995 Col Solare ($119). What were two Italian-sounding wines doing on a Pacific Northwest list? I asked a few questions and discovered that Cameroni is the whimsical name of a Pinot Blanc from Oregon's Cameron Winery. (Colline Rosse refers to the red Dundee hills in the Willamette Valley, where the wine is made.) The Col Solare, on the other hand, is more ambitious; this blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah is produced by Washington State's Chateau Ste. Michelle in collaboration with Tuscany's famed Piero Antinori. Because experience has taught me that quirky generally pays off better at the low end, I chose the Cameroni and was rewarded with a delicious, light, delicate wine.
Try The Tried-And-True
When I want to drink a bottle of first-rate California wine, I tend to bypass the latest cult labels and choose the tried- and-true, producers like Beringer, Caymus, Dunn, Phelps, Jordan, Heitz, Long, Mondavi, Montelena and Ridge. The list created by Joe DeLissio, the wine director of Brooklyn's River Cafe, is an excellent source for such wines. "Too many customers want only wines that have recently been blessed with sky-high ratings," he says. "People have forgotten how good these old-timers were and still are." Although recent vintages of cult wines like Bryant Family and Harlan Estate show up on his list, costing well over $300, there are plenty of other great Cabernet Sauvignons from well-established producers that are relative bargains, like the 1994 Chateau Montelena ($140), the 1994 Ridge Monte Bello ($175) and the 1990 Dunn Howell Mountain ($180).
Buy Against Type
At an expensive restaurant, I'll always look at the low end of the wine list first; at a casual restaurant, I'll check out the high end. I'm an anomaly, according to Nick Mautone, the general manager of New York City's Gramercy Tavern. "My customers think that anything under $35 is inferior," he says, though nothing could be further from the truth at this restaurant, which puts as much or more effort into choosing its low-end wines. "It is easier to put expensive wines on the list because they're what sells," Mautone admits, "but we want to offer a wide range of prices." Even though an average food check is about $80 and the average bottle price is $55, two inexpensive wines that are definitely worth ordering are the 1997 Chatom Sauvignon Blanc Reserve ($28) from California and the 1995 Domaine Bott-Geyl's Riquewihr Muscat ($26) from Alsace.
Conversely, at the Universal Cafe, a San Francisco neighborhood restaurant where entrées are less than $20, the high end of the wine list languishes. But that's where the buys are: the 1997 Etude Pinot Noir ($43), the 1996 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) and the 1998 Kistler Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($62). "I want wine lovers to be surprised, to discover a bottle that they'd never expect to drink at an affordable 40-seat café," owner Gail Defferari says. "It's my way of helping them to indulge themselves."
Figure Out The Sommelier's Passion
Give me a list with a real point of view, a list that shows that its creator is crazy about Sémillons or Austrian wines, as in the case of Steven Geddes, the wine director at Aureole in Las Vegas. His enthusiasm is translated into an impressive 150-strong selection of top Austrian wines, many of them remarkable values. Says Geddes, "I wanted to write a list filled with hidden treasures so that if I were the customer, I'd have a hard time making a decision. These wines are terrific with food or on their own. An Austrian wine is a thinking person's wine, one that requires patience and time for its incredible flavor and complexity to be revealed. I love that." I do, too, and I know that I'd have a hard time resisting either of Geddes's recommendations from Austria's spectacular 1997 vintage: the Grüner Veltliner Ried Schutt from producer Dinstlgut Loiben ($26), a luscious white, or the Zweigelt Dornenvogl from Walter Glatzer ($33), a spicy red that is similar to a Côtes-du-Rhône.
Michael Bonadies is a partner in Drew Nieporent's Myriad Restaurant Group and the author of Sip by Sip (Doubleday), a wine guide.