by Randal Caparoso
So, gentlemen: for once, you’ve had the presence of mind to make dinner reservations ahead of time for Valentine’s night – the second busiest day of the year (after Mother’s Day) for restaurants.
So what are you going to do if you know she prefers wine, but you know absolutely nothing about it? Tell her, “Why don’t we just go for two pints of Guinness?” Wrong! If your dining partner is truly important to you, it is definitely to your advantage to whisper the three magic words: “Let’s have wine.” And this I can say after 25+ years in the restaurant business: women prefer wine!
Which is not to say that the male always does the wine ordering in restaurants. There are, in fact, many women who love to gaze at wine lists. But the fact is that the custom of men actually doing the ordering is still considered as natural as opening doors, carving turkeys, and leading on the dance floor. You don’t have to follow it, but that’s the way it’s usually done.
Since you have to start somewhere, here are ten easy steps to finding the right wine, and perhaps the key to a heart:
1. Bone up. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to prepare by absorbing the introduction of a wine book. It’s called a bookstore, or library (the wine books are always in the food sections). For just $11, for instance, you can find all the information you need in a nifty little paperback called The Wine Avenger by Willie Gluckstern. But if you don’t want to leave the comfort of your desk, there’s always the net. For a perfectly easy introduction to wine, try out Learn About Wine on The Wine Lovers’ Page.
So now that you’ve done some homework, here’s what you do once you’ve made it to the restaurant, and you’ve just been seated:
2. First, a waiter will approach to ask if you would like to start with a cocktail or glass of wine. Rule #1: remember that you are there to please your date, not a server. So without breaking the gaze between your eyes, the thing to do is to simply ask, “Would you care to join me with a glass of Champagne?” If she agrees, ask your waiter for either two glasses, or two splits (the miniature airplane sized bottles), of sparkling wine. In the nicest restaurants, they will usually serve you some kind of French Champagne ($10-$20 a glass). In middle range restaurants, it’s usually a California sparkler ($6-$10). Don’t worry about the quality, since both are usually quite good and make perfect ice breakers — and you’re on your way!
Next, you should be looking at your dinner menus. Perhaps you’re worried about remembering what goes with what. Is it white wine with white meat, or red wine with fish? What if she orders pasta, or veal Marsala — are these white wine or red wine dishes? The answer is — don’t sweat it! Just follow these guidelines:
3. Plan to order a full bottle of wine. Why? Bottles are so much more romantic than glasses! Don’t worry about quantity. If you say something like, “Let’s not worry about finishing it, since the best wines always come in full bottles,” how do you think she’ll feel? Do words like dashing and debonair mean anything? But do not, under any circumstance, ask for a doggy bag for any leftover wine; since a cultivated man is aware of the fact that in most states (including Hawaii) it is against the law to leave a restaurant with an open bottle of wine. Bottom line: drink slowly, and only as much as you safely can.
4. Do take a good look at the wine list, whether you know what you’re looking at or not. The important thing is to look good doing it — this is romance, after all, not a driver’s test. You might consider practicing beforehand — furrowing your brows, raising one side or the other or glancing up with a smile as you turn the pages. You should also remember this: no matter where you are, do not order anything less than $25 — because if she should happen to find out, you’re just not going to look good. I suggest a bottle for around $28-$38, which is the most sensible price range for this day and age, even among connoisseurs. Oh, you can bump it up an extra $5 or $10; but anything more than that could very well be perceived as overkill or, worse yet, an indication of shortcomings.
5. Now it’s time to order the wine. If you’ve already forgotten what little you’ve learnt, don’t panic. Just follow this full-proof method: select one of the two most food-flexible wines in the world, one of which is a white, and the other a red. So you ask her, “Would you prefer a white or a red?” If she says white, look for a Riesling (pronounced “REEZ-ling”) type wine from Germany; preferably one that says it is of Kabinett or Qualitatswein (“quality wine”) level. German Rieslings tend to be a little sweet and extremely light, yet have a crisp, steely quality that allows them go with an amazing variety of dishes. So matter which dish she orders – pasta, salad, meats, and even vegetarian — somehow a Riesling will complement it.
6. If she says she prefers a red, look for a Pinot Noir (“PEE-no NWAH”)from either California or Oregon. Like Rieslings, Pinot Noirs tend to be light yet zesty enough to go with everything from fish to red meats. And like high quality Rieslings, you can find any number of rich and elegant $28-$38 Pinot Noirs in most fine restaurants. Just remember that it’s up to her – white wine or red, Riesling or Pinot Noir.
7. Say you are hopeless, and can’t navigate through a wine list no matter what. Then it doesn’t hurt to ask for help! I believe most women are impressed by that anyhow – like asking for directions on the road. Again, the idea is to look good doing it. Call over your waiter – or in the finest places, the sommelier (“so-mo-YAY”), also known as a wine steward – and ask for a recommendation for a good, medium range German Riesling or American style Pinot Noir. Practice this – letting the names roll off your tongue like a native language, maybe even with a politician’s wave of the hand. If you must, invite the sommelier to look over your shoulder and point out his suggestions on the list. Make it look like a conspiracy – like the two of you are cooking up something truly special.
8. Now I need to prepare you for two possible curves; because as in all things, not everything goes as planned. First, if your date happens to say she likes a very DRY white wine – as opposed to a slightly sweet Riesling – then the coolest, most food-versatile dry white you can possibly order is a Pinot Gris (PEE-no GREE) from Oregon or California, also known as Pinot Grigio (GREE-gee-o) when it comes from Italy. Secondly, if you happen to be in an Italian restaurant, the best possible red wine to order is a Chianti Classico (kee-AHN-tee CLASS-see-ko) – which, like Pinot Noir, is amazing with both fish and red meats, only even better in the context of ingredients like olive and truffle oils, balsamic vinegars, garlic, pesto, porcini, etc.
9. The waiter or sommelier will then wish to perform the serving ritual; which is when he shows you the bottle, opens it, and asks you to taste and approve it. There are few ordeals (like circumcision) worse than this, and so the least made of the entire rigmarole the better. So when he brings over the bottle, look him straight in the eye and ask, “Is this the wine we ordered?” This will make him read the label himself and tell you yes or no, and all you need to do is nod knowingly. Then you ask him to do this simple favor: “Please open the bottle and leave it on the table” (or in the ice bucket, if it’s a white). Once he has departed, you can go ahead and do the honors for her and for you — the proper amount to pour, by the way, is no more than half-way at a time — before raising your glasses with an appropriate, or even rakishly clever, toast.
10. Finally, the finishing touch: how many women don’t like chocolate, or sweets in general? Not many at all. So if you really want to make a mark, do not automatically order coffee with your chocolate desserts – but a small glass of Tawny Port from Portugal. Tawny Ports are sweet red wines bolstered with a little extra alcohol and intensity of flavor which make them absolutely divine with chocolate. Some say better than… well, need I say? There is a good reason why food and wine matches are often described in terms as passionate as love. Because in this day and age, it’s often as good as it gets!