This is a longer version of an article also published by the Financial Times.
How to get the most from a restaurant wine list? Act more like someone in the wine business.
Sommeliers can usually spot a fellow wine professional. Whereas most of their customers desperately scan restaurant wine lists in search of a familiar name to plump for – Sancerre, Chablis, Rioja perhaps – those of us in or around the wine business scan lists for exactly the opposite: the one wine on the list that we have never heard of. We are constantly in search of something new, but we also know that an unusual wine will generally have earned its place on a list through sheer quality.
The other thing that sorts the meek sheep from the list-hopping goats is the near-invariable rule that the more diners know about wine, the more likely they are to ask for advice and vice versa. I have been writing about wine for 40 years now, and qualified as a Master of Wine back in 1984, but I never hesitate to quiz a wine waiter about exactly how various possible choices are tasting. However little or much you know about wine, it really does make sense to benefit from the advice of those who actually pour these wines on a regular basis – and they are generally dying to share it.
Terry Kandylis (extreme right of the picture) is a Greek-born sommelier who has worked at Michelin-starred The Ledbury and The Fat Duck. According to him, 'people in Greece always pretend they know more about wine than they do. In London, even though more people know about wine, some of them will ask. There are so many establishments in London that have amazing wine lists, and staff there just love to talk about them. I'd love to see customers asking more questions.'
There's a common belief that you should choose the second wine down in any selection of wines listed by price. I think this is based on not seeming cheap, avoiding the cheapest wine of all on the basis that it is probably rotgut, and minimising the amount of profit you hand to the restaurateur in an establishment which practises a standard percentage mark-up on cost price – traditionally anything between 100 and 300%. But restaurateurs are not stupid. They know about this 'rule' and tend to ensure that they make a very decent profit on the famous 'second wine down'.
Besides, percentage mark-ups are applied much less rigidly than they once were. More and more bar and restaurant wine lists nowadays are assembled by wine enthusiasts who want to encourage their customers to drink well, so that the better quality wines are marked up much less rapaciously than the inexpensive ones. Indeed there is a movement towards pricing wines so that the profit is more of a bankable cash mark-up than an often-notional percentage mark-up.
And the Coravin wine access system whereby wine can be extracted from a bottle without pulling the cork has led to a pleasing increase in the number of very fine wines now being offered by the glass. Restaurants worldwide now work so hard on their offers of wine by the glass, tasting flight and carafes of various sizes that the standard 75cl bottle is no longer the necessary unit of wine consumption – and we may all be rather healthier as a result.
Another healthy development is the emergence, in Britain at least, of independent and creative wine importers targeting their wares specifically at restaurants. This has dramatically increased the range of wines to be found on the lists of the host of new establishments currently proliferating particularly in Manchester, Edinburgh and London.
But this has the consequence of littering wine lists with all sorts of names very much stranger than Sancerre, Chablis and Rioja. One group of restaurants that has taken a particularly proactive approach to assembling unusual wine lists is that owned by wine importer Les Caves de Pyrène, big champions of natural wines. Cécile Mathonneau of Terroirs in London WC2 admits that many of her customers for long found their rambling, enthusiasm-packed wine lists just too confusing to get to grips with and reports that the addition of a single page listing particular staff favourites has been a boon for all.
At The Ledbury, and some other wine-minded restaurants, specific wine pairings have been introduced to familiarise customers with the restaurant's more obscure wine finds.
Ronan Sayburn is head of wine at the new, wine-minded London club 67 Pall Mall that is in the process of signing up no fewer than eight sommeliers (our picture shows Sayburn third from the left). Sayburn used to work as a sommelier at both Gordon Ramsay's flagship London restaurant in Royal Hospital Road and The Dorchester. He agrees that those without much wine knowledge tend to head straight for the familiar. He sees the wine waiter's job as sussing out the tastes and motivations of each customer ordering from the list (lists in the age of the laser printer becoming much more concise and relevant than the leather-bound tomes of old).
In order to check out the likely wine knowledge of customers he tended to ask them what they drank at home. 'If they said Jacob's Creek, then I'd recommend a fairly simple fruity wine but if they said Léoville Barton 1990, it would be a different story.'
Meals have a wide range of purposes, including celebration, seduction, and business. Sayburn used to have a regular businessman client who would come in with a changing roster of three guests. He would always greet the staff particularly familiarly, ask Ronan to recommend a bottle, and then routinely reject it in favour of a second choice. Ronan worked out after a while that this ploy was deliberately designed to impress his guests, so took to recommending something modest initially.
Knowing that Royal Hospital Road is a particularly popular destination for young chefs keen to see how Chelsea's only three-star restaurant does things, I wondered how Ronan dealt with recommending wines for this relatively impecunious subgroup of customers. 'Oh yes, very easy to spot', he said. 'Dirty fingernails, burn marks on the hands, nervous-looking girlfriends, badly fitting suits – they've usually just lost or gained a lot of weight in their work. We'd recommend a nice bottle of good-value wine and make sure before they leave they're given a look round the kitchen and signed menus.'
Both the UK and US have seen an influx of keen sommeliers from all over the world, especially France, because these diverse markets can offer them an unrivalled geographical range of wines to learn about. I urge you to take advantage of their expertise, and am reliably informed that many New York wine drinkers already do.
One of Sayburn's bugbears is the tendency of French male wine waiters to assume that the host of the party must be male. 'Even if a woman has ordered the wine, they usually automatically give it to the man to taste.' I asked him for other national generalisations and was told that Belgians like their reds, even red bordeaux, served cool, Americans generally like to experiment with other countries' wines, while the French largely don't.
Kandylis can always spot customers who are fellow sommeliers because they ask for the wine list before the menu. 'They go through checking for obscure grapes to try. And they also tend to spend more overall because they know how much things cost and like to take advantage of the bargains they spot.'
SOME FAVOURITE OFF-PISTE WINES
These are a few wines I have enjoyed whose UK importers are currently targeting restaurants and wine bars specifically, so they may be available retail only to a strictly limited extent.
Davide Spillare, Rugoli Bianco 2013 Veneto, Italy
£15.30 40 Maltby Street
Alpha Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2014 Amyndeo, Greece
£16.10 Maltby & Greek
Lismore Estate Chardonnay 2011 Greyton, South Africa
I Vigneri, Vinjancu 2011 Sicily
£26.49 Exel Wines, Scotland
Gerovassiliou, Avaton 2012 Epanomi, Greece
£16.95 Noel Young
Landi, Las Uvas de la Ira 2013 Méntrida, Spain
About £21 Bottle Apostle, Handford, The Sampler
Kutch, Bohan Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013 Sonoma Coast, California
£50 Roberson Wine