Wine Gal Explains Wine Things: How to Order Affordable Wine at an Expensive Restaurant -- And Why Some Wines Are Like Little Kittens
Wine Guy Lou Amdur returns next week. This week, we turn to CUT's beverage director and sommelier Dana Farner who, according to Jonathan Gold's cover story last year on L.A. wine culture, "looks like an indie-rock goddess and insinuates the sublimity of her $152 Blaufrankisch with grilled Japanese beef loin." Here, she discusses more affordable choices on restaurant wine lists and explains why some wines are just like the littlest kitten.
Someone once told me that if you're at an expensive restaurant and you want to order wine that won't send you to the poorhouse what you do is scour the entire wine list, find the cheapest bottle, then order the wine that's a few dollars more. Does this second-least expensive bottle of wine strategy actually work?
Here's what I'll say about inexpensive bottles on wine lists: It's not hard for me to decide if I want to buy Colgin. Of course, I want to buy Colgin. But if I'm looking for something that will be a value wine on my list, it's much harder. I have to taste through a lot of different things, a lot of bad things, in order to find a bottle of inexpensive wine that's great. So there will be wine lists out there where there are going to be big-name brands that you see at the grocery store. But if you're looking at a wine list and see a bottle that's inexpensive on a wine list that isn't familiar? The sommelier or whoever chose the list is probably pretty passionate about that wine.
So the crackpot theory does work!
Well, it works in a way...But I think you're just as fine choosing the least expensive bottle. [laughs] I just feel that the wines that are at the lower end are the ones I really had to seek out, you know? Think of it like choosing the littlest kitten. It was the one you took the most risks on, but the love that you get from that bottle really pays off! [laughs]
Okay, so I'm at a high-end restaurant, I scour the wine list and find several inexpensive wines but I've never heard of any of them. How do I choose which one is the best for me?
Number one: Be honest about what you're looking for. Sometimes I'll go to a table and I'll mention some wines that are in a higher price range and the guests will respond really positively, and then I'll leave and they'll order from the server something that's much less expensive. What that means is that I lost the opportunity to show them those little gems that are reasonably priced. So if you do find somebody to talk with, my recommendation is to just go ahead and say how much you're looking to spend.
We're talking about a high-end restaurant. What happens if I just can't choke out the words?
Then point out something on the wine list that is in your price range. Say, "I want a red wine -- I was looking at this, do you have any other recommendations?" If you're pointing at something that is in the price range you're interested in, a good wine person will recommend the best thing in that range. Most restaurants you're talking about will have a sommelier or somebody from their wine team. If they don't, there's somebody in that restaurant that's passionate about the wine. There just always is. If you ask enough questions and the server doesn't know how to answer you, they're going to find that guy.
Wait. So the way you save face is just by pointing at the price with your finger?
Right! Point at something unusual that you've never heard of. You don't even have to say, "This is my range." When somebody points to something on the list, I know that they're talking about the price.
You'll find Farner and her wine kittens most nights at Cut, inside the Beverly Wilshire, 9500 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 276-8500. Restaurant website here.
UPDATE: Squid Ink followed up with Farner and go a selection of some of the littlest kittens on her own wine list at Cut. Read it HERE.