Picking & Choosing – Navigating a (Kosher) Restaurant’s Wine List

A significant part of an oenophile’s enjoyment of wine is in acquiring and cellaring special bottles for years, thus allowing them to reach the perfect maturity before enjoying them at a special occasion (or a random Wednesday evening). As a general rule, instant gratification is not a trait associated with the serious or even hobbyist, wine collector. However, there is one occasion when instant gratification is exactly what is sought, and that is purchasing a bottle of wine in a restaurant. If you are successful in your selection, you get to enjoy a great bottle right away that hopefully pairs beautifully with your food selection. On the flip side, a poor choice will significantly taint the entire experience, all of which makes the choice of wine of the utmost importance. Fortunately, the art (and believe me, it is most definitely an art) of navigating a restaurant’s wine list is attainable by anyone and, like many things in life, only requires a few key tips and some practice. In this post I hope to provide some tips to help you achieve this and then you can enjoy accumulating the experience.

Before we get into specifics, there are a few general points worth mentioning. While kosher dining and wine drinking have certainly improved exponentially over the last two decades, the wine lists in kosher establishments still tend to be mediocre at best, and are often downright miserable and comprised of the same dreck in every establishment. Additionally, with a few rare exceptions, kosher restaurants in the United States do not allow you to bring your own carefully selected and cellared wine to a meal – a common practice among better establishments (including kosher restaurants in Israel), thus depriving the oenophile the pleasure of a gourmet meal paired with a treasured bottle of his own wine.

While this is partially a result of the lack of importance wine still carries with the average kosher restaurant patron, it is primarily due to the unfortunate requirement of kosher restaurants in the United States to only carry mevushal wines which, with a few notable exceptions, are not usually that great and provide a restaurant owner with few appealing options. Dining out at any good kosher (non-Glatt) restaurant will provide you with an incredibly pleasurable and different wine and dining experience, as the selection on some carefully curated lists allow you to explore new and exciting wines together with your lovingly prepared smoked Mullard breast or pan-seared Foie Gras.

Unfortunately, for the uninitiated a wine list can be an infuriating and ego-deflating experience – exactly the opposite what you’d like when plunking down some hard-earned Lirot. One common pitfall involves spending 20 minutes carefully going over the list and making an educated selection only to be told that the wine you have chosen is not available, or being subjected to the undisguised disdain or pushiness of an unfriendly sommelier.

Another common pitfall is being rushed into making a decision (a common occurrence at many restaurants, kosher or not). However, this practice is far more offensive in kosher establishments where there is rarely a true sommelier or even someone knowledgeable about wine. If you dare to ask for assistance, the server will usually suggest the most expensive wine on the list (typically an over-the-hill kosher Bordeaux wine), or some horrendous (but seemingly exotic) offering from Argentina or Chile. If you find yourself in this situation, firmly tell the sommelier or server that you needs more time – never allow yourself be bullied into ordering a wine you are not comfortable with.

As a general rule of thumb, there are four categories of wine available at a restaurant (although not all four are available at every restaurant).

First there is the house wine which, except in rare occurrences, consists of the cheapest wine the proprietor could find, sold solely by volume (this wine, not coincidentally, generates the most profit for the proprietor). This wine is inevitably selected by customers not comfortable enough to give the wine list a shot, and is almost always a mistake (which you will realize the second the wine hits your lips, if not earlier).

The second category is wines offered by the glass. This is a good option for situations in which only one or two of the diners are drinking wine and only a glass or two at that, but is otherwise a very expensive proposition (unless you are at a wine bar or intend to try many different wines with a multi-course meal). A bottle will typically cost the same as three to five glasses and will usually provide far better value and selection. Unfortunately, the number of places providing a good selection by the glass is extremely limited. If you do order by the glass, insist that the wine be poured from a fresh bottle or one opened that day.

The most common method of selling wine at restaurants (and the third and fourth categories on our list) is by the bottle; either from the standard wine list or from the restaurant’s special or premium list, which usually includes aged, rare, cult or otherwise noteworthy wines. The premium wine list is primarily for status conscious snobs or very serious wine connoisseurs – unless you are in either of these categories avoid this list, which will be prohibitively expensive and probably not worth your money. That said, if you are trying to impress someone or want to try the list out – ask the sommelier for advice as a misstep could be extremely costly!

If you are dining in a kosher establishment in the United States, in order to comply with the mevushal requirement and to give the appearance of a well stocked list, the owner will list as many mevushal wines as can be found and, as you already know, the majority of these are nasty beverages, barely fit for human consumption. While one of the pleasurable things about dining out is discovering new wines, this experience is not easily achieved at kosher establishments – there you are inevitably better off with the tried and true. On rare occasions you might find something you have not tried before and enjoy, but you are far more likely to be sold something that will bring you no pleasure.

In most cases, and assuming they are available in your price point, I recommend choosing either a wine you recognize and have enjoyed in the past, or anything from Hagafen or the Herzog Special Reserve. These wines will undoubtedly be on the list and represent “Safe Bet Wines” – one you can order blindly, knowing they will always be good. A slightly more affordable option would be the Goose Bay wines from the New Zealand winery Spencer Hill, with their Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc in particular being good choices. As with purchasing wines from a store, avoid any white wine more than two years old and check the vintage you are served to make sure it matches the one you ordered (too often mistakes are made and the wrong bottle or vintage is passed off on the unsuspecting diners).

Another tip for successful wine pairing is picking a “softer” wine to match a wide variety of food. For example, a Pinot Noir will be a better match for a variety of dishes your party orders than a robust Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon which, while it might pair nicely with your bloody steak might not pair as well with your companion’s Chilean sea bass.

Top Ten Tips to Navigating a Restaurant Wine List:

1. The first tip actually starts before you even leave the house. Many restaurants will have their menu and wine list available on their website. While you may not want to decide on your meal ahead of time, scoping out the available wines and learning something about them beforehand can make the process significantly less nerve-wracking.

2. As soon as your server comes to the table, ask to see the wine list. This not only lets the server know you are comfortable with and interested in wine, it allows you extra time to study the list and come to your decision. It also allows you to order your wine at the same time you order your first course. Beware though, the restaurant’s highest profit margins are on wine, and the server is incentivised to bring your wine to the table before the food is served (thereby increasing the odds that you will need to order additional wine once your appetizer makes an appearance). If that happens, ask the server to wait to open your wine until your first course is served.

3. A couple of helpful face-saving tips – if you are unsure how to pronounce the wine’s name, point to it or give the server its number from the menu. Try to indicate two or three wines you are considering and ask what he thinks of them (this will also silently convey your price range in the event discretion is desired such as a business dinner or date). It is sometimes helpful to give an indication of the types of food being considered which will give the server (or if you are lucky, the sommelier) an idea of what wines would be a good match to your meal. All this assumes a knowledgeable person is assisting with the wine selection. If someone suggests Bartanura’s blue-bottled ridiculous excuse for a Moscato D’Asti – that is the best indication you are dealing with an idiot.

4. In general, I am not a fan of half bottles – they are far more expensive per ounce than regular bottles and they do not age well. That said, at a restaurant they have a significant advantage. As with wines by the glass, half bottles allow you to try more wines or match wines to the various courses, and also allows you to order the “right” amount of wine if only one or two people are intending to drink it.

5. Avoid the least expensive wine(s) on the list. As with the house wines, these wines provide the owner with the highest mark up, will typically be very low quality wines and almost never provide a decent quality-to-price ratio. Even on the rare occasion that they are actually quality wines, they are the farthest thing from good value on the list.

6. In the same vein, avoid the most expensive wine(s) on the list. Every wine list showcases at least a couple of premier, hard to come by, über expensive wines. Typically a French Bordeaux, like the Château Smith-Haute-Lafitte retailing for approximately $150 or the Château de Valandraud which retails for $300 – neither of which are worth the money. Another favorite is a kosher cult wine like Herzog’s Chalk Hill. These wines remain on the list to keep the heavy-hitting showy clients that covet a flashy Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or snazzy French Bordeaux satisfied. Unless you are positive that you and your fellow diners will appreciate the wine enough to merit the bill, skip it.

7. In the event that you are lucky enough to be at a restaurant with an actual sommelier – exploit his knowledge mercilessly, and ask a ton of questions. In addition to having tasted and sometimes selected the wines on the restaurant’s list, a good sommelier will know a significant amount about the regions, varietals, producers and vintages of the wines on the list. Some good questions to ask include “What wine will pair best with this dish?” and “What wines are your favorites?”. Another good idea in the event you haven’t yet ordered or decided what you will be eating, is to try and give the sommelier an idea of the types of wines that suit your tastes. A simple “I like very fruity wines” or “big, full-bodied, rich wines” should be enough to give the sommelier a sense of your general tastes and suggest a good match.

8. Once you have made your decision and ordered the wine, a little drama still awaits. The sommelier will bring the wine to your table and “present” it to you with a little ritual – only a few elements of which are of any real importance. First you will be presented with the wine for inspection. This step is actually important as almost a third of the time you will have received a different bottle than the one you ordered (the most common change is being served a vintage other than the one you requested – the server will likely try to convince you that this is a “better” vintage). I also suggest feeling the bottle and confirming it is the “right” temperature for you. Then the cork is pulled and presented to you to smell and check whether the wine is “corked”. I recommend skipping this step as its pretty tough to identify a lightly corked wine – even from drinking it. After you acknowledge your satisfaction with the wine’s appearance, the sommelier will pour a small amount into your glass to taste. After smelling and tasting the wine, if you approve, wine will be poured for the rest of the table (if not, be prepared to explain to the sommelier what you don’t like about the wine so it can be replaced).

9. One trick less scrupulous restaurateurs have up their sleeves when dealing with larger parties, is to pour so liberally so that not enough wine remains in the bottle to fill all the diners glasses, which will necessitate purchasing a second bottle (as they finish pouring the server will ask if he should bring another bottle and the natural tendency will be to say yes, to avoid looking stingy and so that all the diners can enjoy some of the wine you have so carefully selected). You are entitled to expect the server to pour an equal amount into all the glasses with enough to satisfy all the diners (unless you have ordered one bottle for 20 drinkers).

10. One final suggestion, which doesn’t relate to ordering the wine. If the food and/or service is especially good or I have engaged in a wine-related discussion with the chef or sommelier, to the extent I am drinking a good bottle of wine, I will always send a glass of wine back to the kitchen for the chef and offer one to the sommelier or server. It is good manners and common sense – and it is remembered and appreciated.