Turning the Tables
One of the founding missions of the Vine was to alleviate "wine anxiety" -- the sinking feeling that comes when presented with either an overwhelming array of wine choices or a "think fast" situation. Not long ago, I was at a conference in Chicago. On successive nights, I found myself out to dinner with groups. Each night, a colleague who knew about my secret life away from the academy handed the wine list in my direction and said something to the effect of:
"You're the wine expert -- so you pick the wines!"
Time for the hypothetical rubber to meet the proverbial road.
OK, then -- ground rules if you find yourself in a situation like this. First, it is of utmost importance that you do not panic. Fight down all of those feelings that rise up about making sure you pick the "perfect" bottle. Guess what? You can't. There's simply no way to find a single wine that will perfectly mesh with everything at the table, so don't try. You're looking for "horseshoes and hand grenades" here.
Secondly, since you don't know everyone's palate -- do the best you can. Think about what you would order with the different dishes -- even if they aren't dishes that you'd ordinarily order.
Third, don't let the waiter rush you. Stall. Order water and say that you're "still deciding on your entre." They'll have to make an extra trip, but no matter -- just tip well.
Fourth, have some standbys in your head. Generally, we fall into patterns with wines and cuisines, so you should have an idea of some relatively flexible wines (or at least varietals) you can call upon. I mean, you can't really go wrong with Riesling or Pinot Noir with just about anything.
Fifth, don't be afraid to get the least expensive bottle on the menu. If a restaurant's worth its salt, they won't put crap wine on their wine-by-the-bottle list. (They will jack up the price of nasty wine by the glass, though.)
So, what did Mike do?
The first night, I was at an Italian place, Volare, with two coworkers from my college and a new friend that we'd met in the hotel bar while we were deciding where we were going to go. (She had given a presentation at the conference, so she certainly needed wine.) I ordered a seafood risotto dish, and the others ordered bowtie pasta in a vodka sauce, ravioli in a salmon sauce, and a Caprese salad (mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil).
What do we have here? Seafood, lots of tomato flavors, and a salad. So, a flexible Italian red. Nothing too heavy, light tannins, and nice fruit. My normal instinct would have been to look for a Montepulciano, but there weren't any available. So, I went with a Barbera d'Alba instead. Something like the Marchesi Di Barolo 2006 Barbera D'alba Ruvei would work well here. (Around $15 retail.) The table seemed to be agreeable with the pairing, even one person who normally didn't drink red wine.
The next night, I was with a large group at Tavern on the Park, a "classic American cuisine" restaurant overlooking...well...Millennium Park. I was having wine, and a couple of other people expressed interest -- although for some reason I ended up splitting the bottle with only one other person. Anyway, the menu at this place is all over the map, but most folks were keeping to beef or seafood. (One of our party ordered a scrumptious looking brownie dessert as an appetizer! Rock on!) Most of the food was grilled, so I needed something that would pair well there.
Grilled meat and fish hearkened me straight back to Barcelona, so I found a Spanish red, the Via Izadi 2004 Rioja (again, retails for about $15). A little bit of spice and smoke on the nose and in the body held up well against the grilled flavors, and enough oomph to handle sauces and the like. Like most Rioja, this one needed to open up a bit before drinking, but once it did, it was a very serviceable, tasty wine. Also, there's the added bonus of introducing people to Spanish wine. Lots of people think that's cool.
The main thing to remember is that you really can't screw up too badly. Just remember, if someone sips their wine and they don't like it -- no worries! They're no worse off than where they started, and they'll probably order whatever they're used to anyway. So, either everyone at the table gets a glass that they like and enjoy, or there'll be an extra glass in the bottle that you're going to enjoy. Whatever happens, you win! So, spin the wheel, hand over the wine list, and let 'er rip...