American wine culture is pretty happening right now, and restaurateurs around the country have picked up on it. That means that we’re increasingly seeing new cafés, restaurants, and wine bars all opening their doors with the promise of having the most interesting drinking options.
But do they? Some, for sure, are true representations of wine culture – these are the ones where talented industry vets with deep knowledge of and passion for wine are intent on sharing what they love, with the world. A legit wine bar or wine-centric restaurant is a place where the goal is not profit or image, but to actually expose more people to excellent and affordable wines, and bring their palates to new heights.
There are a few ways to know whether the newest restaurant on your block is actually going to bring vibrant wine culture to your community, or if it’s just looking to sell juice in order to pad the owner’s pockets. I live in New York City, where places respond to trends faster than the food blogs can even report on them, and I do get to try a lot of places – but I also know where I can count on getting an amazing bottle of wine from a truly passionate sommelier. So I hope these hacks help you find a watering hole that’s truly legit.
It’s About “Producers,” “Winemakers,” Or “Families,” But Not “Brands”
Wine is made by people. Often, by husband-and-wife teams, or families. Even though machines can be involved, there are still people behind a winemaking operation. If your sommelier is referring to “brands,” then he is talking about large companies with shareholders, not family-run, independent wineries. At a legit wine restaurant, your sommelier will have some knowledge of the actual people who make a wine he is offering to pour for you. He may even have met this winemaker, whether at a dinner or on a trip, but if not he should still be able to talk about the winemaker’s style, the vineyards, and the general region the wine is from. The same way you now expect to see a farm listed alongside the duck entrée on the menu at your favorite farm-to-table eatery, you should expect information about a winemaker to be presented. Consider it vineyard-to-glass.
They Want You to Drink Literally Whatever Makes You Happy
You want to drink rosé in January? Have Sauvignon Blanc alongside your ribeye? Start with a sweet wine and finish with Champagne? The sommelier can present options, and she can even warn you that your pairing is unusual. But she’d better not dare tell you that it’s wrong to drink anything. Wine does not come with rules. There are certain accepted wisdoms that have developed over time, but even those are recent additions to our wine culture. Back in the 17th century, Europeans loved drinking sweet wines at all points in the meal, rather than just with cheese or dessert. So, be a rule-breaker, and if your sommelier objects or sneers, get out of there and don’t look back.
You Can Send a Wine Back without Feeling like An Idiot
OK, this is a somewhat tricky one. Here’s why: there are wines, such as oxidized Savagnin from the Jura, in France, that are super weird, and an amateur drinker might perceive them as rotten, bad, or corked. A corked wine, by the way, is very common: it’s about 5-10 percent of all bottles that have a wet cardboard taste, resulting from a cork becoming infected. It happens for no particular reason, and you do not have to drink a corked wine; if you think a wine tastes funny, you should ask the sommelier to taste it (or re-taste, as he should have tried the bottle before approaching you to pour it). And if it’s corked, nobody drinks it. It goes back to the distributor, who accepts it as a loss. But if the wine isn’t corked, and you just don’t like it, or it’s not what you expected, you can still send it back. It’s not the coolest thing to do, but guess what: it’s also not the end of the world, you’re entitled to drink something you enjoy, and believe me, if the wine is OK, and the staff will drink it without complaint.
No Upselling, And No Insane Mark-ups
If you want the cheapest wine on the list, then that’s what you should order. But here’s a pro tip: the best wines, in terms of value, are the second cost tier, usually between $50-60 in most restaurants. That’s where the mark-up gets smaller, so you are paying closer to the actual cost of the wine. But regardless, a sommelier should never recommend a wine to you for any reason other than that she thinks it’s exactly what you’re jonesing for. Similarly, if she sees that everybody at the table is ordering by-the-glass and suggests a bottle, you should listen to what she’s recommending, because if the place is legit, she’s probably trying to save you money and provide a wine that will please everyone. You have a radar for being upsold; use it to know whether a place is for wine lovers, or for profit. On this note, if a place has ridiculous prices, compared to other restaurants or wine bars in your city, you might want to try another spot.
You Get Comped A Starter Beverage If Your Bottle Isn’t Cold Enough
You scour the wine list, and find a really interesting bottle of white, or bubbles or rosé, and proudly place your order, excited for the bottle to come. But for whatever reason, this wine is stored in a part of the cellar that isn’t very cold, so it arrives to your table barely chilled. Any industry vet worth his salt will do the right thing, and put that wine on ice, and in the meantime, offer you something to sip on while you wait for your awesome bottle. It could be something bubbly, or a little cocktail – the point is, it’s about hospitality. The worst thing would be to serve the wine warm and expect you to drink it like that.
The Somm Is Not the Only Person Who Can Talk About Wine
Not everybody at a restaurant will be an expert on the entire wine list. But at a legit venue, the staff – and that ranges from the food runner to the chef – will all taste together regularly, and have at least some knowledge about the wines. In the best case scenario, your server will not cower with fear and ask you to point to the wine you are pronouncing in perfect French, if you are at a serious wine bar. Your server may not know tiny details about the bottle you are choosing, but he should be able to understand your order and answer any basic questions you have about how the list is organized. Beyond that, he will probably send a sommelier or manager over to your table.
There Are Sparkling Wine Options beyond Champagne
Sparkling wine is an incredibly important category, with delicious and affordable options hailing from all over the world, including New York State, the Loire Valley, Alsace, Lombardia, Emilia-Romagna, and many other places. In other words, by no means should your choices for fizzy wine be limited to that of over-priced, hyper-branded category of wine, the appellation of Champagne. This is not to knock Champagne, at all; on the contrary, a great wine list should feature several “grower Champagnes,” which are made by winemakers who also own or farm their vineyards instead of just purchasing grapes. But the fact is, it’s not necessary to pay $85 at a restaurant for a great bottle of hand-crafted sparkling wine made in the style of Champagne, which means the bubbles occur naturally through a secondary fermentation in the bottle, and then aging occurs on the lees, which are dead grape skins. Or, there should be excellent pét-nat wines, which are bottled early, during the first fermentation, and are therefore slightly fizzy and a little funky.
Now that your radar for legit wine restaurants and bars is up, you can go out and take advantage of the amazing wine scene in this country, which is getting better all the time. Check out this list of new restaurants with innovative wine lists around the country, for inspiration, and you might also want to prime yourself by reading up on how to navigate an intimidating wine list, before you head out. Cheers!