It’s bound to happen sooner or later. You’ll find yourself in a restaurant or a bar. You’re out for dinner with clients, staff, or friends. And someone’s going to hand you the wine list.
Now what? Do you freeze? Panic? Hand the list over someone else?
No, no, and no. What you do instead is remember a few things. First, the era of the snobby sommelier is long gone. (If anyone tries to pretentiously shame you into buying something you don’t really understand or even want, I encourage you to walk away. Literally and immediately.) Second, wine is food. It comes from grapes, and it’s just another very enjoyable layer of flavor to add to your meal. You’re entitled to your own opinion about it, just as you’re entitled to say whether you’re vegetarian or you don’t eat foie gras.
And third, and most importantly as a fellow entrepreneur, remember that the wine world is pulsing with entrepreneurial initiatives. You can look at a wine list and find “our people,” that is, people who are doing unusual, innovative and disruptive things, whether in adventurous parts of the world or in traditional wine regions but with inventive techniques or communications or packaging.
Here are four clues and questions you can ask, to help find your way.
Notice what seems “off.”
“Off” here is not a bad thing. Have a look at the list, and see if something jumps out at you as unusual or incongruent, like a grape you know from a place you don’t (tempranillo from Texas, say) or a place you know and a grape you don’t (like dolcetto from Sonoma County). These are likely signs of what the Germans call a querdenker, or someone who thinks outside the box.
What wine are you most excited about? Why?
Long before restaurants or bars open for dinner service, wine directors and sommeliers are visited by local sales reps from wineries and distributors who “taste them” on wines that are newly available in the market. This happens on a very regular, if not daily, basis so chances are good that the staff has something new to offer. Even better than new, however, is something that they’re excited to offer — something that has caught their eye, that they think will interest their clientele because of its appealing taste or narrative or both. That’s the wine you want in your glass that night.
Ask about packaging.
Some of the most innovative thinking in the wine world right now has to do with packaging — more than choosing one color or design of a wine label over another, wineries are being inventive about shipping wine in bottle versus can versus box, and offering it “on tap” like a beer. Find out what’s breaking the mold where you’re dining, and ask for a sample. You’re very likely to be surprised.
Find out what the chef likes to drink.
When I worked in restaurant kitchens, no one ever came back to ask this question but, if they had, they would have gotten an earful. Not only about personal preferences but also about which ingredients on the menu the cooks were psyched about that night, which would have given the servers some hints about what wines to offer. Cooks are an untapped resource when it comes to wine, so ask away. You’re bound to be surprised by the responses.
What’s the most unusual wine on the list right now?
“Unusual” could mean a few things. It could be an unusual grape, like a newly identified indigenous grape from Italy. It could be a wine that was made in an unusual style, like those that are fermented in amphorae. Or it could be an unusual offering from a usual place, like a white pinot noir from Burgundy. In any case, it will be interesting and a conversation starter and starting conversations, after all, is why we have wine on the table in the first place.