I had a professor in grad school who never failed to point out the most glaringly obvious themes in whatever play we were reading and treat them like trenchant insights — gee, Tennessee Williams’ homosexuality informed a lot of his writing? You don’t say! — and for that we dubbed him MOTO, or Master of the Obvious. I bring this up because I’m about to deliver a pretty MOTO observation, but one that I still think is really valuable: before you go out to dinner, check out the restaurant’s wine list online.
Doing some online wine list recon comes in handy for so many reasons. First, it allows you to get acquainted with price ranges. If it’s truly astronomical and you’re the host or going dutch, don’t be afraid to call the restaurant and ask about their corkage fees. ($25 is pretty standard for a higher-end New York City restaurant. Just be sure to bring a wine that isn’t already on the wine list…and offer your server or the sommelier a glass.) Second, it allows you the great luxury of time. Who wants to spend 20 minutes stressing about this Chianti vs. that Super-Tuscan while your dinner companions are engaged in a riveting discussion about the Mad Men season premiere? Better to peruse the list during the day at your leisure as part of your work procrastination routine.
It’s also a great way to learn. Better wine lists will have selections you won’t find at retail, so take advantage of this opportunity to try something new. See if you can identify a few bottles on the list you’ve already tried so you can tell your server/sommelier what you like (and/or what you don’t). Pick 3-4 bottles in your price range, do some quick Google searches, and see what you can find out. For example, tonight I’m going to Frankie’s Sputino, a casual Italian join in Carroll Gardens. I love Northern Italian reds in the summer as many of them are light and juicy enough to go down easy in this weather, but have the structure to make them good matches for a variety of foods. I’m going to spend some time today online researching their wines from Trentino/Alto Adige, tucked in the Northeast corner of Italy. Granted, it’s a bit easier for me because I know something about many of these wines and regions to begin with, but with a little digging and patience you should be able to hit on a few interesting wines. I’ve also been known to print out the list and, after my dinner, write a few quick tasting notes on what we drank. This is a particularly good idea if it’s a restaurant that you plan on coming back to.
A final advantage to doing your research: coming armed with some knowledge puts you on better footing with the restaurant wait staff, particularly if they try to drop some unhelpful MOTO-style observations on you.