The Layman’s Guide To Ordering Wine
By Kat Thomas
I know the look. The head drops, eye contact is avoided and the body language starts to build a fortress around the wine list. This is my cue to tread gently. I smile, introduce myself as Kat the Wine Goddess, and let the table know that I am at their service for anything wine and/or spirits related. This is usually when the guest grasping the list timidly asks what my favorite food dishes are, which I gracefully acknowledge and help them navigate through. With trust built, the games begin.
Sometimes I’m called back to assist and other times they know what they want and I merely take the order. (Who am I to dissuade someone from ordering the—insert popular overpriced name here—when they’re both proud and adamant about it?) It’s a table’s moments of hesitation—or, pure eagerness to hear from the girl with the sword on her back and garter full of knives—that I get to expend my knowledge; perhaps, even, suggesting a wine more exciting or gently priced than what a table wanted originally.
(Please don’t misunderstand my intentions or work ethics, as I enjoy making the restaurant money and strive to do so. But I also have a partnership with my soul that is guided by intellect, passion and courage to speak my goddess mind when applicable. I can assure you that when you dine in my presence, I make every effort to hear what you’re hoping to taste and not make suggestions based solely on trends or my personal preferences.)
This partnership between restaurant and my soul is how I define myself as a sommelier, or in my world, the sommelier at Rose.Rabbit.Lie., located inside The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. But…what happens when I’m not there to serve and soothe wine-ordering nerves? Or better yet, what happens when you want to become the Wine God or Goddess of the moment? You don’t need my sword or my special wine pin to make that a reality. You need only what is in my head to be in yours. And since knowledge is power, here are some thoughts to help you, from my perspective, on how I assist a table (…but don’t tell everyone or I’ll be out of a job!).
Take Charge Of The Process
First step is to ask for the wine list, as no other act will better establish your role as Wine God or Goddess of your table. Don’t let that person who “knows wine” always pick, or you may end up spending too much for a wine you never wanted to know.
The next question I like to ask a table is, “White, red or both” (and remember: that includes sparkling wines). Often, the query is concomitant with pricing, so you then must establish boundaries, both high and low. For the best wine is not always the most expensive, and the least pricey may not always be the best value.
Once your table is at this point, the fun really begins.
Interpreting Thy Wine List
Take your gaze to the Table of Contents. The wine list will typically be broken into categories of “body,” “region” and “variety.” Wine lists often travel through the styles of sparkling wines, into the whites, followed by reds, and end with sweet and dessert style wines. The flow is lightest to heaviest, so you’re already a step closer to picking even if you don’t know anything besides price and style. If someone wants a heavy red you’re move is to pick something listed toward the end of the reds than from among the first few.
Now: There will always be exceptions to this presentation, but most wine directors write the list to mirror a food menu progression: light to heavy.
It’s All About Body…But What Does That Mean?
Let’s talk more of this body concept, shall we?
The body of wine reflects a vignette of variety, alcohol and many times the vintage. Body is what the wine feels like in your mouth. Do you want something light, rich or beautifully in between? In this instance I like to think of Goldilocks and her three porridge selections…with the wines not relative to porridge temperatures, but to how thin or thick each may have been because of what they were made with. Imagine for example, the lightest wine (or “coolest” and thinnest porridge) was made with, say, coconut water; the boldest wine (or “hottest” porridge) was made with a rich, non-GMO cream; and the third “just-right” porridge option, or in our case, that perfectly mid-road wine, was made with 2% organic milk. Ahhh, yes: Just right.
Now, you choose what body of wine you want for the particular experience: thin, rich or middle-of-the-road balanced. Want examples? Following my Goldilocks protocol, here we go:
Lighter-bodied “cool-porridge” wines.
For whites, there are the varieties I consider fun. To me these varieties are human and wallet-friendly and not common (to most drinkers) unless you’re a wine nerd or you’ve traveled to other regions of the planet and drank their wines. Try a Txakoli from Spain, Assyrtiko from Greece, or a Muscadet from France. For those more recognizable varieties, a Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre or California, Pinot Grigio from Italy, and drier styles of German Riesling can make the moment just right. (Please note some Riesling can still be sweeter even though it’s considered “lighter.” They tend to have lower alcohol levels and feel more crisp and lively on the tongue.) If the list revolves around a specific cuisine, many a delicious Italian and Spanish white can fall into this category while staying committed to value pricing, as well.
The category of lighter red wine indicates both texture and color, as these wines come from grapes with thinner skins. Barring that a vineyard isn’t secretly trying to make a Syrah, the light-bodied Pinot Noir can come from all over the planet. France, the United States and New Zealand are producing some beautiful and reasonable wines. Other classic styles of light-bodied reds that I’d call “fun” include Gamay from France; Zweigelt from Austria; and Blaufränkisch from Germany.
Bold, full-bodied “hot-porridge” wines.
Next, these big-daddy wines are the easiest to find on the list because they’re almost always toward the ends of the variety selections. They also tend to cost a little more because of winemaking practices. Oaked Chardonnay from Burgundy, the Unites States and Australia are easy choices, as are Viognier, Rhone blends, and old Riesling from Austria and Germany. The reds are numerous. Bordeaux varietals live in this realm—Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Malbec. Australia and the United States offer Grenache and Shiraz/Syrah, while Corvina from Italy and Zinfandel keep your teeth stained with love and alcohol.
Medium-bodied, “just-the-right-temp porridge” wines.
These can be a great compromise for when there’s debate over what to order; however, it does get tricky here in the middle. Chardonnay rests between the lines based on producer and where it’s grown. Medium-bodied Chardonnay is found in Chablis…though there are other regions that produce lower alcohol and higher-acid styles with the same mouth-feel. Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux or the United States can be quite pleasing in the middle realm without too much oak influence, thus providing mostly texture and weight. (And note to the Wine Gods and Goddesses: If ignored, oak can greatly alter the perception of food profiles, so pay it some attention.)
If you don’t want to worry about all of that, try something “fun” like Malagoussia from Greece; Chenin Blanc from France; Albariño from Spain; Arneis from Italy; and Grüner Veltliner from Austria, all of which are some great examples of ways to impress without stress.
Medium-bodied reds include Tempranillo from Spain; Carménère from Chile; Sangiovese from Italy; some Syrah from France; and Pinotage from South Africa. Some even consider Nebbiolo from Italy, though this style of wine can be known for ripping faces off regardless of its body, age, and price, so order with knowledge.
See? Variety is fun! Embrace the knowingness that no two wines are alike, but be aware they will exhibit qualities, or markers, that are shared. And when in doubt, remember to read the list lightest to heaviest. Or ask for the somm!
Where’s That Wine From Again?
Region can play an important role in a Wine God or Goddess’s decision, especially if you’re feeling adventurous; though the only rule of Old World vs. New World is that there are no rules except ones that establish historical winemaking boundaries and techniques.
Historically, Old World regions include France, Spain, Italy, Austria and Germany, while New World indicates the Americas, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. In the very recent past, Old World could indicate less concentration of fruit, higher acidity and lower alcohol. The thought was that warmer regions—those considered in the New World—would show higher levels of fruit concentration while Old World styles would play off the cold land and have a more intense fruit flavor profile. However, climate shifts, progressive winemaking practices and commercial sales expectations are intertwining Old and New.
Now you know.
Time To Rise and Order
Does any of this make a difference if you’re so serious about ordering that you’re not having fun and enjoying the wine? Sometimes, you just have to take charge and become the Wine God or Goddess to stifle the impending uneasiness of others who dislike making a decision more than you. And that brings me to the last and most important step in the wine-ordering experience: take chances.
Enjoy the moments, and ask for help (if you wish). I can be found most days at the most amazing restaurant, Rose.Rabbit.Lie., located on the second level of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. You’ll have no problem identifying me. I’ll be the one ready with my sword, my smile, and my unending willingness to toast life with a bottle that’s perfect for you…no matter who chooses it, or how.
Kat Thomas is the Sommelier at Rose.Rabbit.Lie, at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, where for almost a year she’s been pouring to the delights of patrons. Known for her wit and way with a bottle and sword, her favorite wines are too many to mention; but the one that made her focus poignant was the 2006 Redigaffi Tua Rita (which also marked her first month of being a Somm on the floor in 2011). For Thomas, a successful night is one where she’s helped patrons feel bliss and comfort throughout the meal with food and wine pairings; porron pours; sabered anniversary bubbles; and most of all, serving up some Vintage Krug. Thomas is an Advanced Sommelier pursuing her master’s with the Court Of Master Sommeliers.