Allen R. Balik: The Wine Exchange: Dining Out

Allen R. Balik: The Wine Exchange: Dining Out

Deciding to dine out seems pretty straightforward as we do it routinely and often don’t pay attention to all the details involved. What restaurant are you choosing, will anyone be joining you, is the cuisine tantalizing for all, will you be bringing wine or selecting from the list?

A good friend of mine from New York, where dining out is as common as eating at home, recently called me and shared his thoughts on some challenges he’s been experiencing with his local restaurant scene. Ken’s questions revolved primarily around the wine list, wine service, and selecting the “proper” wine. Given his solid vinous knowledge, he’s often asked by his dining companions to select the wine for the table.

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No problem, when it’s just Ken and Virginia but the decisions become a bit more complicated when dining with others. They involve some of his pet peeves surrounding the list and service, “wine etiquette” and of course the pressure of making the right choices.

What’s everyone ordering? How adventurous are they about trying some enticing but lesser known wines? Are there price considerations, especially when splitting the check? These are just a few of the questions we all ask ourselves when ordering for the table. And there are other challenges ahead in navigating a complex list and dealing with the sommelier even before we have a chance to peruse the menu ourselves before the server appears, ready to take the dinner order.

Thankfully, dining out in Napa Valley is usually a far less complicated adventure than found in other “epicurean capitals” of the country such as New York (where Ken resides) and some parts of Los Angeles (where I resided before moving to Napa). Our local cuisine, service and wine choices rank among the world’s finest but everything here seems a bit more laid-back with an emphasis on helping (and educating) rather than trying to impress (and often intimidating) the diner.

Man pouring red wine to wine glass.


So now your group is comfortably seated and here comes the wine list. Are you excited and intrigued or simply awed by its sheer size and complexity? Are you thinking, “If I take the time to read this whole thing I won’t have time to enjoy the company or the meal?”

In today’s world of computers, printers and tablets the sight of the leather bound and beautifully calligraphied tome is more or less a thing of the past. But the list can still be confusing all the same. In general, wine lists are organized by category starting with sparkling, rosé, white, red and dessert. Within these main categories it may be further broken down by country, growing area, varietal, price or flavor profile from lighter to bold.

Here are a couple of suggestions I offered Ken to accelerate the search so he’ll have an opportunity to look at the menu before the server arrives to take the dinner orders.

To deconstruct and simplify any wine list you encounter, simply narrow your selection process as you would with the menu or other “shopping” experiences. If you know you want fish, you don’t have to spend time perusing the beef dishes. If you walk into a department store to buy a sweater, you don’t have to look at the fragrance, shoe and shirt displays. By the same token, if you want a white wine, don’t worry about the daunting list of reds. If Cabernet is your choice, don’t worry about the Pinots and Zins. The same logic and parameters can also be applied to the price. Set a limit and ignore those choices in your chosen category above that level.

And if you need help or can’t pronounce the name of the wine, ask the sommelier. The somm is there to aid in your search and enhance your experience, although sometimes you’ll encounter one who’s a little pushy and prefers to guide you to a more expensive choice. Here you can merely say something like, “I prefer a medium bodied Pinot Noir at about $60. What do you suggest?” That will send the message on both wine type and price range in one simple statement/question.

red and white wine glasses arranged before party on a white tablecloth close-up

Now, how to make your choice while not really knowing what’s being ordered around the table. There are several varietals and blends that have a far broader range of food pairings than the traditional Cabernets and Chardonnays. Look for Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris (more so than Pinot Grigio), Albariño and other aromatic whites or a dry rosé for starters. Then perhaps a Pinot Noir, Grenache, Merlot or Sangiovese for a diversity of main courses. Here too, the sommelier can be a big help both in direction and speeding-up the decision process.

When the wine is brought to the table the somm will go through the customary “routine” of having you check the bottle and taste for irregularities. Only wines with obvious faults—not whether you like it or not—should be refused before pouring for the table. And when the wine is ready for pouring, both Ken and I agreed how to avoid two of our biggest pet peeves. Over-pouring — so another bottle will be necessary. Followed by refilling the glasses of those not drinking as much of the wine. Sound familiar?

I address both issues very simply. I ask the somm or server to simply pour a small portion for each guest so the wine has a chance to breathe. Then, I request having the bottle left on the table. Now we can handle the refills ourselves. Easily done without ruffling any feathers.

Four friends eating dinner at rooftop restaurant


When dinner is over and the check arrives, Ken was concerned about the tip and how to calculate it properly. The percentage of bill appropriate for tipping is an individual choice. Although sometimes controversial, I feel the price of the wine should be included in the calculation as are other food items. If you’ve brought your own wine and paid the corkage, a slightly higher percentage for the tip is recommended to compensate for the server’s efforts without the sale of the bottle(s).

Dining out should be an effortless and gratifying experience all the way around, and we should never let the wine list or serving etiquette stand in the way of enjoying a meal with friends. Just remain a little flexible and exercise your choices.

Allen Balik has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years. Each year, he and his wife, Barbara, produce the Evening Of The Culinary Winemasters event at Warner Bros. Studios, a benefit for Cystic Fibrosis.

He regularly appears on CRN Digital Talk Radio’s What’s Cookin’ and What’s Cookin’ on Wine programs.

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