Thick wine lists can be intimidating. You met the fellow diners at your table last night. Tonight is the first formal evening. You made the case you are a wine fan in last night’s introductions. Now it’s time to prove yourself. How do you do it?
Twelve Strategies For Thick Wine Lists
Regardless if you are seated at a table for ten or a table for two, you want to navigate the wine list and get good value. Here are ten strategies:
- Plan ahead. Have lunch in the dining room beforehand. Ask what’s on the menu for dinner. There’s usually a “headliner” entrée everyone orders. Ask to speak with the sommelier or your wine steward. Ask for suggestions. Get a few. Order in advance.
- The bin end list. Ships often rotate their wine lists with the seasons, just like on land. The wines removed from the list often turn up as “bin end” specials. Ask to see the list.
- The structure of great wine lists. I’ve always believed extensive wine lists have at least one bargain buried somewhere for true wine lovers who understand fine wine. For example, Sancerre, a sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley of France is very popular. The wines from nearby Quincy are considered substantially identical, but cheaper. Wines from Touraine, also in the Loire Valley are mostly sauvignon blanc, but less well known and cheaper.
- Wines to avoid. You’ve learned this lesson in expense account steakhouses back home. Many people feel they are on solid ground ordering a California cabernet sauvignon, ideally from the Napa Valley. For this reason (and others) they often have three numbers to the left of the decimal point. Red Bordeaux wines from France fir into the same category. If you recognize the chateau name, it’s likely expensive.
- The California cabernet substitute. (1) You want a cabernet with your steak, but are priced out of California. No problem. Cabernet is popular. Everyone grows it. The thick wine list probably offers cabernets from Argentina, Australia and other countries. They are often far less expensive and are tasty bottles.
- The red Bordeaux substitute (2). You want a Red Bordeaux with your steak. Your ship likely has a wine offered in the name of the shipping firm, negociant or distributor. Often these are famous British firms with household names. It’s towards the bottom of the list. They are usually both tasty and reasonable.
- It’s plentiful and often not that expensive, compared to the red wines discussed above. Champagne is a celebratory wine. You can make the case it goes with almost everything. If the true French champagnes are too pricy, look at Prosecco as an alternative. It’s from Italy and usually far less expensive.
- Cotes du Rhone. Here’s a reasonably priced wine, often in red and sometimes in white you should find on most wine lists. It’s tasty. It’s reasonably priced. The South of France has pretty warm summers every year. It’s rare to find a bad bottle.
- You need a white wine for lunch or dinner. The American chardonnays are expensive. The white burgundies from France make the American chardonnays look cheap! What can you do? Muscadet is French. It’s from the Loire valley. It goes great with seafood, especially shellfish. It’s usually quite reasonable.
- Wine bought in port. It’s a great way to extend the fun of your shore excursion. You’ve been in Sicily. Mount Etna is on the horizon. You found a wine store and bought a bottle from a famous producer whose vineyard is at the base of the volcano. You are sharing the experience. Most ships have a corkage policy, charging you a nominal amount to serve your own wine at the table. Try not to bring a $3.00 wine you bought at the supermarket.
- Wine by the glass. This is a good option if you are the only wine drinkers at the table or if you prefer different wines with different courses. Be aware, a simple category like Cabernet might have more than one selection and more than one glass size. Just be aware what you are spending.
- House wines. The ship usually offers their “own label” wines, usually by the glass and often by the bottle. They should be a good, safe choice too.
Buying wine in a restaurant or dining room doesn’t need to be intimidating or a ‘hand me your wallet” experience. You have options.