How to make the right choices

Merchants pour forth on wine list prices, varieties and more

Dining & Wine


I was curious how wine pros, retailers who sell wine for a living, navigate restaurant wine lists. After speaking with a sampling of area wine merchants, I came away with a handful of techniques to use when ordering wine at restaurants.

The retailers I spoke with were Mitchell Pressman of the Chesapeake Wine Co. in Canton, Jay Miller of Bin 604 at Inner Harbor East, Rick Breza of Mills Fine Wine & Spirits in Annapolis, Craig Salemi of the Wine Underground in Hampden and Lee Grandes of Wells Discount Liquors in Cedarcroft.

This being a town known for its frugality, right away I asked about wine prices in restaurants. The wine merchants acknowledged that when they scan a restaurant wine list, in the back of their minds they see the wholesale prices of these wines. Restaurants mark up their wines, sometimes several times above the wholesale price, as a way of covering the cost of doing business.

The rest of us do a version of this calculation when we spot a familiar wine at double the retail cost on a restaurant wine list. Getting worked up over wine markup could interfere with your enjoyment of a night out on the town.

One way to cope with this issue, the wine guys said, is to go ahead and do the math, but keep the matter in perspective.

"If there is a $20 wine on the list that you know cost $5 but is still the best buy, then pick the wine and don't worry about what anybody is making on it," said Pressman. "If that is what a decent restaurant operator has to do to stay open," he said, then accept it as part of life and enjoy the evening.

Knowing the retail price of wine also can help you spot relative bargains on the wine list, places where the markup is smaller, said Miller. Sometimes, he said, the more expensive the wines, the less the markup.

The wine guys also said customers shouldn't be shy about telling a restaurant waiter or sommelier how much they want to spend on the wine. This information, along with the food you order, helps the waiter by narrowing the field of selections, they said.

"Don't be worried about what other people might think," Miller advised. "Say what you want to spend and ask for recommendations in that price range."

On the food front, the wine guys had several suggestions of how to pick a wine in a situation when she is having fish and he is having red meat.

One solution: Order a bottle of rose. Once regarded as a sweet, girly wine drunk only in hot weather, dry roses are now excellent companions for many dishes.

"People used to think rose was only sweet like white zinfandel," Miller said. "But it is a great food wine. It has some of the character of a red. But is not too weighty, so it can go well with lighter fish dishes."

"Roses, especially those from Southern France, are a great answer to the surf-and-turf situations," Grandes said.

Another wine that bridges the meat-fish barrier well is pinot noir, Miller said. This medium-body red wine matches up well with tuna and salmon as well as most meat, Miller said.

Ordering by glass is another way to match courses of food with various wines.

"Wine by the glass is a good way to experiment," Salemi said. A diner can start off with a glass of white wine to accompany the seafood appetizers, he said, then switch to a glass of red to go with a beef entree.

While Pressman agreed that wine by the glass was a good way to "mix things up," he acknowledged that it could be costly. Ordering five individual glasses of wine, for example, is much more expensive than ordering a 750-milliliter bottle that holds a similar amount. The markup on wine by the glass is higher than by the bottle. When you drink wine by the glass, he said, you are getting variety and "you are putting aside price, for the sake of pleasure."

Miller, however, said he steers clear of ordering wine by the glass in restaurants. His inner-accountant won't let him do it. "You are not getting any value," he said. "You are better off ordering a half bottle," which, he said, holds the equivalent of three glasses, often at a better price.

Finally the wine guys had some guidelines on how to make safe selections.

Usually you are better off, they said, picking the lesser-known names rather than the celebrated stars. In California reds, for example, zinfandel offers more value than big, better-known cabernets sauvignons. In French wines, wandering among the Cote du Rhone and Beaujolais is much less risky terrain than traveling in the world of the pricey Burgundies.

Thanks to a global economy, there are many good wines from overseas that are values when they show up on American wine lists, they said.

Among them are sauvignon blancs from New Zealand and South Africa, shiraz blends from Australia, syrah blends from Sicily and malbecs from Argentina.

The wines from Spain are improving, the wine merchants said.

"Spanish wines are very hot," said Breza. The red wines made with Monastrell, Grenache and Tempranillo grapes are exceptional values, said Salemi. Whites made with Malvasia grapes are crisp and fresh, he said. Even Miller, who ordinarily eschews ordering wine by the glass, admitted that he might be tempted to break from habit and order a glass of Cava, a Spanish sparkling wine, or a glass of Prosecco, an Italian sparkler from a restaurant wine list.

With these wines, Miller said, "you know what you are getting."

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