Weekend Wine Guru
By the time you read this, it will be over. I will have either successfully or unsuccessfully shouldered the burden of selecting wine at a fine Italian restaurant - solo. I almost never dine out with just girlfriends, so the prospect of doing it in another city is cause for celebration indeed. No kids, just girls, free to spend long, lazy 10 hour stretches sifting through racks and racks and racks of gauzy, overpriced chiffon blouses. But then I'm also anointed "Weekend Wine Guru," by default. Sure I'd traveled alone before having kids, usually to medical meetings, where I'd breezily take charge with drink. But back then, I was a myopic California cab-aholic, reducing the expansive global world of wine to 10 or 12 well-known, "big name" producers. In some way, things were easier then, even if I drank massive, mouth-puckering tannic behemoths with delicate, lemon-laced turbot. Now less callow, I actually cringe at the gaping chasm between my enological enthusiasm and my actual knowledge and fledgling palate. Best option: ask the sommelier. I know firsthand that A16's wine team is terrific; guiding newbies through a challenging and overwhelmingly, expansive Italian wine list is what they do best. That said, some general parameters still require calculation. I'd like to be democratic and polite, inquiring of my dining companion, "Red or white?" But instead I'll narrow the field by 50% by opting for red, which is my preference (plus I know my pal doesn't actually care). Then we'll negotiate details. The first challenge is price range. Since I plan to foot the bill, this should be my choice, right? Wrong. The cost of wine is a dicey subject, since it twists and writhes at the core of our wine consciousness and informs every sip of that 750 ml's. Do you approach a $350 and a $35 bottle of wine the very same way? Where is your comfort level? Can you still have fun knowing every sip is costing you $25 a gulp? Or does extreme indulgence and financial gluttony amplify your Bacchanal pleasure? On the other hand, nothing says class and style better than a box of Franzia. What if my dining companion (incorrectly) fears she can't "appreciate" an ultra-luxe drink? Then she won't indulge heartily, and where's the fun?? The moral: monitor and accept your personal wine finance barometer but indulge your companion's.
Next step: take your partner through a series of simple, straightforward questions. "Big or small?" is a solid start. Wine, of course, stretches from quaffable, easygoing bottles of fruit-packed giggles like Beaujolais Nouveau to inky, thick, chewy, tannic Australian monsters. To your surprise, your answer may not even delimit or exclude a particular varietal, since some merlots taste thin and soft while occasional pinots play to masquerade as syrah. Descriptors like "big and fat," "light," "soft," "dense," or "smooth" do more for a sommelier than a broad sentiment like "find me a cab." Basic adjectives work especially well for more expansive or esoteric wine regions that export fun, interesting and downright weird grape varieties we've never even heard of before.
Once size is settled, go with "fruity or not?" and "dark fruit or light?" A colored coated fruit palette arches across cherry, cranberry, strawberry, raspberry to blueberry, blackberry, plum, and cassis then right past raisin, fig, jam, and prune straight through to chocolate, licorice, black pepper, and spice/clove (which I realize aren't "fruit" per se). Some folks like jammy fruit-pie-in-your-face while others dig a mélange of confounding aromatics that dwarf the berries behind a haze of smoke, earth, mint or pepper. Lastly, when dealing with the Italians, I think asking oneself "rustic or not" is entirely appropriate. There is something evocative and romantic about a local, rough hewn wine that tastes cleanly of fruit, earth, and sun. Unpolished and even a little clunky, this is a dusty, unlabeled bottle that a local, white-haired farmer extricates from a trap door in the basement, while explaining enology is just a hobby, and that this is a wine a he crafts for pleasure and family alone. It elevates simply prepared, fresh cut pasta to magic. These quirky Italian gems are the olfactory opposites of the gleaming, polished, streamlined perfection of Italy's finest super Tuscans, Brunellos, and contemporary Barolos. These premium superstars are like sleek Ferraris, macho and smooth, nuanced to indulge an exclusive international palate, and I love those babies, too. Frankly I value my signed, unlabeled bottle of 1999 Siro Pacenti Brunello di Montalcino above two of my three children.
And so begins the courtship with the sommelier. Give and take, and talk, talk, talk. "Show me a medium-bodied $45-75 bottle of Italian red wine with forward fruit balanced by some earth, something a bit more refined and smooth, fairly mild tannins, and good acidity for food. Oh, and sommelier, please make it a wine I've never tasted before."