How To Hack Wine In a Restaurant and At Home

By Carolyn Stine December 5, 2018 

Dear Wine,

We have a love-love relationship with you. You’re always there for us when we need you, and you never judge or ask uncomfortable questions. Whether we’re on the couch, out to dinner with the girls, or entertaining a group at home, your presence is known, loved, and appreciated. The only thing is, we feel like you know us better than we know you. Sometimes we have a tough time describing you, or picking the best version of you off a menu, or off the shelf at the wine shop. It’s not you, it’s us. We're working on it...

Love always,

Us

So what’s a girl to do when we make a resolution to learn more about the world of wine, how we increase our wine education, and how we apply it to entertaining and dining out? We turned to Lauren Volper, Chief Wine Educator and Founder of WineUp.

During her tenure in the service industry, Lauren (a trained sommelier) saw that there was an enormous need for clear-cut wine information delivered to millennial wine drinkers - the largest market segment of wine consumers to date! She noticed that drinkers in their 20’s and 30’s were afraid to mispronounce wines, or ask questions, because there was stigma around not knowing pertinent wine information. From this came the spark to start WineUp - a wine education and tasting service targeted to millennial wine drinkers who want a functional approach to leveraging their wine knowledge. And this is why we knew that we needed to sit down with Lauren and pick her brain about all things wine - how to buy it, how to order it, how to entertain with it. Welcome to our guide to the ultimate wine hacks.

Q

So how do we hack the process of ordering wine when we’re at a restaurant for dinner?

A

If you’re ordering by the glass, hang out at the restaurant bar before your dinner reservation to partake in happy hour. There are usually the same selection of wines available by the glass as there would be at your table, but for up to 50% less per glass. That way when you’re seated, you have already warmed up to the party, and for a bargain!

If you are with another person and both of you are planning on more than one glass of wine with dinner, it’s better to order the bottle, even if you do not finish it (but you probably will, since a bottle is 4.5 glasses!). The restaurant can cork it for you, and you can take it home. What’s better than wine with dinner? More wine after dinner, and knowing that you didn’t pay as much of a markup for wine by the glass.

One important thing to note: there’s no need to avoid the cheapest wine on the wine list. These can be fantastic wines! Spoiler alert: they tend to be harder to pronounce on purpose. Restaurants know that people already feel a little uneasy ordering the cheapest glass on the list, so they double down by putting the hardest wines to pronounce as the cheapest - i.e. Jacquere, Txakolina, etc. Point to a cheap, hard to pronounce wine on the list and ask what it is comparable to. No need to be shy, as industry people are notorious for ordering the cheapest pick on the wine list - it’s how we are able to afford going out as often as we do!

Alternatively, you can point to any wine on the list and say you would like something in this *this range* as you point to the price. This comes in very handy when you are hosting a group at a restaurant.

Q

What if we’re hosting a group at a restaurant - how do we approach the wine for this type of entertaining?

A

Pick your wines ahead of time, to ensure that they are in stock and your budget is matched appropriately! You can do this by emailing the sommelier, or if the restaurant does not have a sommelier on staff, a manager or beverage director should be delighted to assist. Ask for updated wine list emailed to you. This is not an unusual question to ask, since most restaurants do not regularly update the menus on their website.

Most restaurants will insist you have a set menu or minimum if your group is larger than 8-10 people, or will have you book a private room. If that is what you want to do, then great, but if for some reason this starts to become too expensive for you, you can hack it by asking to host your group on a midweek day. Restaurants are much more likely to let you order a la carte on a Sunday-Wednesday, then they are on a weekend night, as they are much slower in the beginning of the week.

Not sure which wines to pick for your guests? Overall tip - it is better to offer a variety for your guests and have greater selection of wines, than to have smaller selection of expensive wines (most people cannot tell quality by taste). You want to focus on creating a valuable experience, not an expensive experience that no one will appreciate as much as you. People will be more impressed if you pre-picked wines and had the sommelier pour a different wine with every course than if you only had one wine option for the entire dinner.

Q

How do we hack the process of buying wine for a party that we’re hosting in our own home?

A

A safe measure for a dinner party is one bottle per person who drinks wine. It may seem like a lot, but if you are having guests over for 3-4 hours (or more), that is a little more than one drink per guest per hour. It is always good to account for more in case one bottle (heaven forbid) is corked or faulty.

I always have a bottle of inexpensive sparkling wine. This is a crowd-please and it doesn’t have to be expensive. A good blanc de blanc goes over fine, and no one can tell the difference. I happen to love cava, as I find it is less apple-y than champagne and has more delicate and neutral flavors.

Portuguese wines from the Douro region are some of the most underpriced wines for the quality in my opinion. They are a great option for people who love Napa wines, but don’t want to pay the hefty restaurant markup on top of already spendier choices.

For red drinkers, Argentinian Malbecs are very popular and great for younger wine lovers, as they tend to be fruity, but still bold enough to pair with meat courses.

Red blends from Central Coast California are always interesting and trendy options. They offer nuanced flavor profiles that nobody can quite put their finger on because they are blends. They are also almost always the best value in Californian red wine.

But at the end of the day, choose wines that have meaning to you. Did you go abroad to Spain for a year a meet your fiancé there? Have all Spanish wines! Maybe you and your best girlfriend had an amazing trip to Greece; break out the Akakies! Make it meaningful, and serve everything with thought. Your guests will appreciate the anecdotes you can tell about the wines you chose more than the money or name cache a wine has.

Q

How do you think about pairing wine with food when you’re entertaining?

A

I am a huge fan of starting with a massive charcuterie platter that guests can snack on, and this pairs well with a sparkling wine, Vouvray, Muscadet, or rosé. Sparkling rosé NEVER has disappointed a soul in the history of the universe. It’s instant happiness in a glass. It doesn’t have to be Veuve Rosé either - The Mumm Napa is just fine for a crowd.

If you’re serving a salad, especially one with a combination of bitter greens, fat, and acid (think arugula with goat cheese, beets, and pine nuts), go with a a Sancerre or dry Riesling.

Having a pasta course? Pair a red burgundy like Domain Tardy Pinot Noir - the earthy, forest floor aromas are nicely complemented with the savory notes in the sauce.

For steak or roasted meat, I love a Syrah from Santa Barbara, or Chateauneuf du Pape. Alternative pairing style is to think “things that grow together, go together”, so if your herbs and spices are based in Italy, like basil, then a safe pairing would be an Italian wine. A delicious Italian bold red to try is a Sangiovese, which goes great with higher fat meat dishes like bolognese because of the tannic structure. This wine is often too intense on it’s own for it’s “chewy” tannins, but when paired with a braised dish or meat sauce, it is the perfect balance.

Q

How should we think about buying wine as a gift, with the holidays upcoming?

A

My general rule of thumb is “when in doubt, champagne!” No one has ever been disappointed with receiving champagne, I promise. I personally have interviewed dozens of people on what they like to receive as a hostess gift in terms of wine, and that is the most popular answer.

Again, it can be “fake” champagne, but try to make it something that you don’t see everywhere if you go this route, especially if you are on a budget - that way no one will know you only spend “x” amount of dollars. Go to a nice wine shop and ask the people that work there what they like to drink, as people in the industry are notoriously good at hacking the value vs. price game! Do NOT be shy about speaking what your budget preferences are! It’s much better to say what you are comfortable spending, then to not disclose, and waste precious time you could have spent finding the right bottle.

Q

Overall, how do we increase our knowledge about all things wine?

A

The best way to increase your wine knowledge is by trying wines you have never tried before. There are a couple of ways to go about this:

  1. We have all heard the saying “When in Rome…”. In an Italian restaurant, I order Italian wine, even if I see a wine that I know I like on the list but it’s not Italian. Tell the server what you like, and ask what they recommend. For example if I like Napa cabs,  I might say I like warm climate, full-bodied reds with bold tannins...the server at the Italian restaurant then knows what to recommend that is special to their establishment - not offer you more Napa cab.

 

  1. Trader Joes is great for buying inexpensive and decent wines. I do something called the “$7 choose your own adventure” where I go in, pick a wine I have never tried before under $7, and try it for the first time (I share them all on @getwineup). I’ll admit, sometimes it’s not my favorite wine, but that’s how I increase my wine knowledge. And FYI, my go-to inexpensive find at Trader Joe’s is the Famille Perrin Cote du Rhone (for around $7). If you like lighter-bodied reds that don’t have face-sucking drying tannins, try this one. It’s a great compromise if you like Pinot Noir from Willamette, but don’t want to shell out $25 a bottle.

 

  1. I have clients that say they only like Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, but that’s because they are still learning how to describe their taste preferences. Talking to the people who work at your wine shop and favorite restaurants will help you to describe what you like using the correct wine terminology. The more you know, the more leverage you have in making wine-buying decisions. It’s fun when you go out and all your friends put you in charge of the wine decision - you get to turn everyone else on to new and exciting experiences, and that is what wine is all about - enjoying and sharing an experience with people around you.

I learned so much from Lauren, I hope you did too! Are there any other tricks you use for navigating wine?

Tell Us What You Think

Carolyn Stine

A party without cake is just a meeting.

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