Wine Talk: The wine list, please

How to survive, and even enjoy, ordering wine at a restaurant.

Wine bottles (photo credit: Courtesy)
Wine bottles
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Many people do not drink wine at home, except on Shabbat, but they will not hesitate to order wine in a restaurant. So what should you expect in a restaurant that takes wine seriously? Firstly, I expect a wine atmosphere. That is, wines being on display, with glasses as part of the “mise en place” on the table. The better wines should be stored horizontally in wine fridges or in a temperature-controlled wine room.
The glasses should be of a quality good enough to show wine at its best. They don’t have to be big enough to house a goldfish but also not simple Paris goblets or chunky water-style glasses with a thick rim.
I would hope to find an easy-to-read and understandable wine list, with wines set out logically, in order of price, style, region, winery or grape variety. I would also hope to find a good proportion of Israeli wines.
At the turn of the century, when imported wines were reasonably new, there was a proliferation of imported wines on wine lists on the assumption that Chateau Something from France was automatically better than the Israeli equivalent. Today, the percentages have turned again in favor of Israel, which is good news. Tourists want to try the local wine, and Israelis want to support their local wine industry. There is no shame in being biased in favor of Israeli wine. Visit Californian or French restaurants some day and see which wines they favor.
However, it is a blessing if the foreign wines listed are not just big commercial brands but carefully chosen wines to complement the Israeli wines on the list.
Unusual varieties from unconventional wine-producing regions are fine in my book. For instance, the opportunity to try wine from Austria instead of Germany and from Sicily instead of Tuscany challenges the customer to try something new. Wines to educate, enlighten and surprise are better than disappointing overpriced famous brand names.
Size does not impress me. Today, some of the best wine restaurants will have a page or two printed daily according to the menu, the inventory situation and what was drinking at its best. The telephone book wine list impresses certain people, but quality control in the cellar with so many wines may often mean more expensive duds are served. Serving a wine at its best is an important part of a restaurant’s job.
These days, there should be sparkling wines at all prices. A so-called cava, which has become Israeli slang for any sparkling wine, is a very popular aperitif by the glass. I would hope there would be at least one champagne, an Israeli traditional method sparkling wine, a Spanish Cava or Italian Prosseco and some less expensive Israeli sparkling wines on the list. If you don’t know what to order for an aperitif, a sparkling wine gives you an option that is a great start for the meal. The choice does not have to be just champagne.
I would look for a good selection of wines by the glass or half bottles. Too many, and I would worry how they were kept fresh. Too few, and the choice would be lacking. The restaurant smart enough to offer expensive wine by the glass would be a winner. Wine by the glass does not always have to be the cheapest wine. I remember in the United States once ordering a glass of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, when I could never afford a bottle; and the creative restaurant that sold Chateau d’Yquem by ounces, instead of a full glass, allowed me to sample this nectar for the first time. A restaurant can be at its most creative in its selection of wine by the glass.
I would hope the wine list would reflect the theme of the restaurant. This is for some reason a rarity in Israel. However, a regional restaurant in the Galilee could focus on wines from the same region. An Italian restaurant should specialize in Italian wines, and a Greek restaurant in Greek wines. Obvious, but it is surprising how often the wines and drinks list do not reflect the raison d’etre of the restaurant.
I meet many sommeliers, or wine waiters.
The best are invariably not the most knowledgeable and certainly not those who strive to show off their knowledge with every word. The best are those who have empathy with the customer, who succeed in providing the person with what he is looking for in terms of style and price or leading them to something new. Those who enhance the meal experience are good. Those who give you an inferiority complex are not.
I recently ate at a quality restaurant in England with a self-confident young French sommelier. I had a bad experience that illustrated to me exactly how not to deal with a customer. (He did not know I was in the wine trade.) After my return, I discovered that this same sommelier had won one of the major sommelier awards. He may be able to taste blind, serve under pressure in front of an audience and be a mini wine encyclopedia, but if he was unable to use his knowledge with the correct people skills, I would not employ him.
I would expect the finest kosher wine lists to exhibit the superb range of kosher wines available here, and a few of the finest kosher wines from elsewhere to give an international flavor. Wines like Capcanes from Spain, Covenant, Herzog and Hagafen from California and the usual French players like Laurent Perrier, Chateau Leoville Poyferre, etc., would give an international restaurant an international flavor.
I would hope that a kosher restaurant was able to list the finest kosher wines. For those expecting yayin mevushal, I would offer the services of the mashgiah to open the wine or give the customer an opener to open his own bottle. Certainly I would expect in a kosher restaurant for the mevushal and non-mevushal wines to be marked in an unobtrusive fashion. This would be as a service to those for whom it will be important.
(In America, all the wines served in a restaurant are likely to be mevushal.) As soon as I arrive in a restaurant, expecting a hospitable welcome, of course, I would expect to be seated with menus.
Straight away without delay, I would hope to be asked what aperitif I wanted. A glass of sparkling wine or a glass of white wine served quickly means the evening has started.
As soon as I have ordered the food, I would be ready to place my wine order. A smart restaurant interested in sales and service would serve the wine without delay.
Firstly, it gives an impression of good service.
Secondly, my table may be looking for a second bottle by the time the food comes.
I often order the white wine by the glass so everyone can choose what they prefer, and the red wine by bottle. I never argue against bringing a special bottle from home to uncork at a restaurant. You have saved it for a special occasion, so why not? Also, even if the restaurant charges you corkage, you will be quids in because restaurant prices tend to be so high. Just be sure that the wine you bring is not on the wine list.
I like to receive a short, separate list of dessert wines and after-dinner drinks along with the dessert menu. Sipping a dessert wine can be a sublime way to finish a great evening. This can go well with desserts, cheeses or even enjoyed on its own in place of a dessert.
Examples of restaurants with a serious wine program and good sommeliers are restaurants like Toto, Messa and Yaffo Tel Aviv in Tel Aviv. The best kosher wine restaurants include the Olive Leaf in the Sheraton Hotel, Lillyot in Tel Aviv and Mamilla in Jerusalem.
We in the wine business tend to put wines in the forefront of the dining experience, but we are not the norm. It is okay if your wine is in the background, fulfilling an important function but almost unnoticed and untalked about. Jeff Morgan described to me how he thought wine was the covenant that combined a good meal with good company.
As he is the owner of Covenant Winery from Napa Valley, one of the world’s finest kosher wineries, it is clear why he chose the descriptive word “covenant,” but he is exactly right.
Wine does make the occasion. My point is that wine does the job, and it does not have to be the award-winning wine to make the difference. It is difficult for me, but normal people can enjoy a wine without talking about it.Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.