If receiving a wine list at a restaurant gives you anxiety, you're not alone. For those of us who haven't spent forever studying wine, it's easy to just blindly pick the lower mid-priced wine with a name that you vaguely recognize and hope for the best. While this methodology can sometimes work out, how cool would it be to look at a list and actually know what you're talking about?
Since we want to spend our money on wine we actually like, we sought help from the owners of the Insta-famous Brunette Wine Bar. Tracy Kennard, who runs the Kingston, NY hangout with her husband Jamie, gave us the low-down on picking the best pour.
What is your methodology when approaching a wine list?
Tracy Kennard: It helps to become familiar with a few wine regions and use that as a compass for choosing a bottle. That said, we often do the opposite. If we see a wine from a region that we are not familiar with, we'll often gravitate towards that. It’s fun to be taken out of your comfort zone and to try something new — especially if you’re somewhere you trust.
Do you need to know what food you're ordering before getting a glass or bottle of wine? Are there certain varieties that work with most meals?
TK: Well, I generally start off with a glass of sparkling rosé regardless of what I’m planning on having for my meal, so I’m probably the wrong person to ask.
I do think that those traditional rules of whites with seafood and reds with meat are becoming less and less important. It’s like not wearing white after Labor Day — if I have a white dress that I love, why would I not wear it year round? Same goes for wine. I love Gamay, which tends to be a lighter red with high acidity and low tannins. But maybe with fish, I’ll drink it as a rosé. And if I’m drinking it with pizza, I like it with a slight chill. So yes, wear white in December and chill your Gamay. Or don’t. The rules really needn’t apply, anymore.
How does the year and region a wine comes from make a difference?
TK: Oh, it makes all the difference! Especially if you’re talking about small production, natural wines. Knowing your geography can often provide clues as to how the grapes might be grown and what kind of ripeness, acid, and sugars might be found in the bottle. An alpine wine grown at higher elevations will generally be bright, crisp, and high in acid, while one grown in volcanic hot, dry conditions may be aromatic and spicy. Certain regions also have unique winemaking styles (like the Jura region in France).
Vintages can be good reference points back to weather and or other natural occurrences. Was it an especially hot year? Did that region have early spring frost or heavy rains during harvest? Were there nearby forest fires that could have affected the grapes with smoke taint?
All of these details are parts of the puzzle that help you make an educated guess about the wine you’re about to drink.
Can you break down some of the most common varieties that people may find on a list?
TK: A wine list takes on the personality of its management or wine director. So at the more casual places that we tend to go, there seem to be fewer common denominators on lists.
These days, you can find restaurants with an exclusively Chenin Blanc list, or that serve only wines from Georgia. It’s a pretty fun time to be serving and consuming wine.
For us, the driving factor is taste. Turns out, we really love wine from Beaujolais and the Loire Valley. That means we have a lot of Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, and Melon de Bourgogne on our list. We also love light, chillable reds, so that means lots of Cinsault and Gamay.
If you're ordering on a budget, do you have any tips for ordering (apart from just the cheapest thing on the menu)?
TK: If you’re on a budget, ordering a bottle is certainly the way to go, because you’re usually getting at least a free glass per bottle. In general, we find wine from the Loire Valley to be really well valued.
Do you have any other pieces of advice to share?
TK: Always ask questions! And never feel intimidated. No one is judging you — in fact, your server is probably more excited to pour you a wine that you love than you are!
Being a regular doesn’t hurt, either. We have customers who come to mind when we’re tasting and we’ll literally say, “Oh, we have to bring this in, Alex is going to love it.”