Sunday, July 05, 2009

Wine Lists and Hidden Gems

We dined out the other night with some friends. Having lived for more than a decade in a small town with limited dining options, I appreciate the diversity of good restaurants in Columbia.

I discovered an interesting bottle of red on the wine list. It’s funny how sometimes something just jumps out at you. I happen to know that the chef has an eye for unusual wines and tries to put some good buys on the list.

It reminded me of something I read on Serious Eats a while back. Deb Harkness (of Good Wine Under $20 fame) wrote about the mark-up on wine in restaurants and corkage fees. The comments reflected a wide range of feelings on the subject – some rather strong feelings I might say.

The more I considered it, I realized her feelings of being ripped off aren’t really justified. Everything has a different mark-up in the restaurant business. Your bottle of wine is a veritable bargain compared to the margin on a glass of ice tea or a cup of coffee. The difference with wine is that you frequently know exactly how much it costs retail.

I know all too well the slim margins most restaurants operate on. I can’t begrudge them making money where they can. I do chuckle at the whopping mark-ups on certain wines. How often have you seen a bottle of $4 white zinfandel for $20? Or better yet, the same $4 wine for $5 a glass? It gives me yet another reason I’m glad I don’t drink white zin.

I will admit that I look for bargains on wine lists. Sometimes you find a bottle that they haven’t marked-up very sharply. Or, I look for something I don’t see in retail stores. Restaurants get access to wines that wine shops don’t. It’s all about being a savvy wine drinker.

If you order a bottle of Cakebread, Silver Oak or Justin, you know you’re going to get your rear end burned on the price – likewise with the popular, low-end wines. It’s the off-beat, middle-range wines that are often the best deal.

Back to our lovely dinner at Motor Supply Company, I picked out a bottle of Tandem Peloton Red California 2006. One of my first rules for shopping a wine list is to go right for the “Other Reds” category.

This bottle was $38 and it retails for $25-ish (which I didn't know, by the way). Not bad, especially when you consider it’s probably difficult to find in my local retailers. It’s a eclectic blend of pinot noir, zinfandel, carignane, sangiovese, syrah, chardonnay, gew├╝rztraminer and pinot meunier.

How's that for an “Other Red?”

The grapes are sourced from all over Sonoma and beyond, hence the California designation. It’s a prime example of what a careful hand can do with blending. It’s shows the delicate raspberry and strawberry of pinot noir, the earthy smoke of carignane, the spice of zin, and the complex undertones of the other players.

I was more than happy to hand over the $38, especially at a time when so many independent restaurants are struggling. Here’s to all the sommeliers, chefs and owners who put hidden gems on their lists for the more adventurous among us.


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