Drink more wine all the time

Being a savvy wine drinker doesn’t require a highfalutin pedigree or six-figure salary

Mike Chandler, wine director at Enotria Café.

Mike Chandler, wine director at Enotria Café.

Photo By Jill Wagner

If, like me, you grew up in a home where wine was served from refrigerated boxes or gallon jugs, the sight of a restaurant’s leather-bound wine list is probably enough to put you squarely on the wagon for the evening. Wine, like fire and the wheel, has been part of human civilization for thousands of years. Why, then, does it cause such consternation among us neophyte drinkers?

Mike Chandler, wine director at Enotria Café and Wine Bar, says that many restaurant-goers perceive wine as a high-end item and are often reluctant to ask questions about it or experiment with unfamiliar labels.

“Wine shouldn’t be taken too seriously,” Chandler says. “No matter what it costs, it is still just a grocery item.”

Chandler himself owns 4,000 bottles of those grocery items. As a lover of wines, he encourages diners to open their minds, and stretch their palates, so they can enjoy the experience, too.

So, where do you start to find this magical marriage of food and beverage? And furthermore, how do you get over your wine fright and get on the wagon?

Forget the white-with-chicken and red-with-beef rules; “It’s all about accompaniments and spices,” Chandler says. For example, Chandler explains, whites are very acidic, which is why you wouldn’t drink one with a sauce-covered filet or a salad with vinaigrette dressing. Moreover, there are so many different varieties of red and white wine, you still will faced with a tough decision. Ordering the right wine to complement a particular dish can make the meal that much better. “One doesn’t necessarily make the other taste better, but certain flavors just marry well together,” he says. Say you’re ordering a rack of lamb: Chandler recommends pairing this with a New Zealand pinot noir, which has more “earthiness” than pinot noirs made in the United States. His ultimate pairing? A grilled filet mignon—prepared simply with olive oil, salt and pepper—and a cabernet sauvignon.

Ask for suggestions.
Don’t simply order something you are familiar with or have had before. Chandler says diners who rely on this wine safety net can really miss out. “People don’t have to be snobby to talk to me,” he says. “Breaking the ice can be hard, but I’m there to make people’s dining experience that much better.”

Start a dialogue.
Even if the restaurant you’re dining in doesn’t have a sommelier* or wine director, engage your server in a wine-related conversation. If you know what you might order, ask what goes well with it. Some questions Chandler suggests asking include “What wine is exciting you right now?” or “I normally like X, what do you suggest I try?”

Practice full disclosure.
Be completely honest with your server. Tell them what kind of wine you usually drink, and even how much you are willing to spend. If you don’t know a lot about wine, admit it, or if you don’t want to spend more than $25 for a bottle, say so. The more information the server has, the easier it will be to make a suggestion you’re comfortable with.

Know the basics.
You could visit every winery in Napa Valley and still not know all there is to know about wine. However, if you know which wines qualify as sweet and which as dry, you might be able to wing it when a knowledgeable server isn’t handy. As a general rule, the sweeter wines are pinot noir and zinfandel (red) and Riesling and chardonnay (white). Merlot is a dry red wine and sauvignon blanc is a dry white. Don’t misinterpret the definition of “dry” in this case; instead of “not wet” it means “not sweet.”

When looking at a short wine list, go with what you know.
Not all restaurants have those leather-bound wine lists. “If you know you like pinot noir from Russian River, and there’s one on the menu, go for it,” he says. Without an extensive menu, there won’t be as many opportunities for those magical pairings Chandler was talking about, but look at it this way— at least you’re not drinking wine from a box.

* A sommelier is a wine steward in a restaurant. According to Mike Chandler, among European royalty, a sommelier was “the guy who had to try everything to make sure the king wasn’t getting poisoned.”