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The Semiotics of Wine Ordering

Matthew Fallaize: a useful guide to choosing the right wine

So, you're in a restaurant, you're presented with a wine list. You don't actually know anything about wine, you have a passing interest, you quite like it. You know that Sauvignon Blanc is white, you have a vague idea that New World wines are consistently okay. You're like most people. Well done you.

Sadly, however, you're out for a meal with a first date. Goodness but they're hot, they fulfil most of your basic tenets of what constitutes a good partner. you'd like to look impressive.
Nightmare scenario: it's a date with mutual friends, and guess what: Jeremy (for want of a better name) is fantastically clued up on wine, and is possessed of the sort of personality which is only too happy to share it. They are a happy band of people to whom this article will be irrelevant. I'm delighted for them, but night in, night out, I see people to whom it is. From the right side of a corkscrew I watch people ordering wine in a restaurant, and I can see the pain it causes them.
This isn't pain on a macro, significant-event level. It's the more immediate agony caused by being forced to admit that you don't know what you're doing in a public place. It's the sort of tiny and unimportant pain that will cause you sleepless nights. The sort of thing which, sensible type that you are, you know you shouldn't worry about, but you do.

Ordering wine in a restaurant, be it a cheap and cheerful bistro with a decent selection of grapes bought from a reliable local off-licence all the way up through to a bells and whistles gaff with a sommelier who can talk for hours about terroir, domaine and vin jaune without batting a Crianza'd eyelid is a symptom of a modern disease, not wanting to appear to be a bit of a tit. It's easy to avoid this, and also to annoy the overly enthusiastic Jeremy, by following some simple rules.

The first thing that you have to remember is this: somebody chose the wine list. This is a desperately important fact. Somebody on the staff of that restaurant has gone to the trouble to pick it, which leads us nicely to rule one:

ONE: Never, EVER pick the house wine. Restaurants have to make a profit, they're an expensive business to run, and like as not some of the reasonable offers on food are subsidised by the bar.
House wine is buy it cheap and pile it high, that's what it's there for. If the restaurant is paying more than three quid a bottle then the manager is an idiot. As a general rule it's venomous swill, watch out in particular for wines in two litre bottles. You'll get what you pay for. If you've got the cojones to stand by your choice then good luck to you. But you're wrong.

TWO: Use your undoubtedly impeccable judgement of character to suss the wine waiter out. Ask them for a recommendation, this will instantly endear them to you. Bear in mind that night in, night out they deal with people who know less about something dear to them than they do, and they're dying to show off. Nine times out of ten they'll point you in the right direction (and your confident conversance with them will make you appear clued-up, and unafraid to ask advice, the hot date will approve), but watch out for the quick sideways glance, followed by the effusive recommendation for...

THREE: The wine that the restaurant can't shift. This might be quite good (at my own bar we can't sell an utterly fantastic Cotes du Rhones, due to a sadly prevalent snobbishness against French wines), but normally it's something that the numbskulled owner bought cheap (see point one) and the long-suffering staff have to deal with on pain of sacking. Demand to taste it first, you're allowed to, they recommended it. Which leads us neatly to the tricky part.

FOUR: A lot of confusion surrounds the arcane ritual which is tasting wine, and this is the area in which Jeremy (with his extensive collection of books on the subject) will revel. It's simple. Don't taste the wine. If you picked it, you're only checking to see if it's corked or not. If it is, send it back. Just swill it a couple of times and sniff. You'll be able to tell if it is because of a musty aroma redolent of old socks. If, on the other hand, you went for the wine which the poor, pressurised waiter picked you're perfectly within your rights to send it back if you don't like the taste. Don't feel bad. Any wine waiter worth his salt will have had your card marked the second you walked in, and after a brief and deceptively bland conversation will have figured out what to sell you, and if you're operating at the end of the market I'm aiming at, the poor souls in a vaguely okay place then avoid...

FIVE: This may not seem important, but trust me, in the eyes of Jeremy (and given his loud and braying voice, the eyes of everybody within a five-mile radius) it is, avoid Chardonnay and Shiraz. Particularly Aussie Chardonnay and Shiraz (you can get away with Shiraz from any other country, they call it Syrah, Argentinean is good, by the by). There's nothing wrong with either of them, they're just a bit passé, darling, and Jeremy will waste no time in telling you that. Opt for an interesting grape (Carmenere, from Chile, if you can find it, is definitely your boy, state loudly and confidently that "oh yes, it's indigenous to Chile, tastes unlike any other grape, if I'm being honest"), if it tastes godawful, at least you'll look adventurous.

To conclude. Life is too short to worry about which combinations of tastebuds are going to kick in in any given situation. The staff in the restaurant are not out to get you, they are merely doing their underpaid job. There are, however, a few simple ways to feel better in yourself when in this situation. There are no ways, sadly, to shut Jeremy up, short of punching him very hard in the face.

© Mattew Fallaize May 2002
email: "MatthewFallaize" <>

(Editor's note: I hate to disagree with Matt but Hardy's Stamp Collection 'Shiraz' is the most trustworthy and easy to order Australian wine in the world
- always consistent and sometimes amazing for the price. Otherwise, everything else he says is absolutely true and we welcome more contributions along this line. I have a rule of thumb, judge a restaurant by it's house wine. If it is truly awful so will everything else be. Believe me, as a penniless editor of a web journal I am an expert on how awful house wine can be and never, ever, under any cicumstances drink Merlot - there are easier ways to kill yourself)

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