August 2, 2007

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Be your own sommelier
Finding your way around the wine list
By Tim Protzman tprotzman@sbcglobal.net

Here are some questions that strike fear and annoyance into the hearts of many.

“Can you help me move?

“Have an extra 50 bucks?”

“Could you watch my kids tonight?”

There used to be a sort of social compact that said, do not ask your friends anything that puts them in an awkward position. But the “me” generation blew that away along with “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” They also got rid of “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” but they had help on that one from the litigation attorneys.

My A-bomb phrase, the one that causes fear and loathing in my peer group, is “Wanna go out to eat tonight?”

In the beginning it was innocuous. People readily agreed. But then I got into wine, and this little set of words caused people to wince and freeze up. Now getting a group together has become a verbal saber duel. My friends have learned to parry with the best of them.

“Wanna go out to eat tonight?” I ask.

“Where?” they reply.

“The Insipid Dandelion?” I counter.

“Do they have a wine list?” they ask cautiously.

“I dunno know,” I answer.

“Sounds like fibbing to me.”

“OK, they do.”

“How many pages?”

“Nine”

“Oh, tonight? Sorry, we have harmonica lessons.”

“How about after?”

“The lesson lasts ’til midnight.”

“Will you come if I just order a martini?”

“We’ll meet you there at 7.”

It’s not that they don’t like my company; they just don’t like my company on the wine list.

Restaurant wine lists can be intimidating. Especially when dining with a wine head who tries to pair and orchestrate everyone’s entrée with the proper wine. And when we say things like, “Fettuccine Alfredo!!! My god, we’re ordering pinot noir!” it just makes people nervous.

And most restaurants have way too many wine choices. Ever take two rambunctious kids into FAO Schwarz for an hour? No matter how many times you tell them “one toy only” and no matter how many times they promise they understand, it still gets ugly.

My friends hate the way I dither and ask about vintage years (which seem to have disappeared from most lists in the last few years). They hate the way I try to script and craft the perfect pairing. They end up feeling less relaxed and well-fed and more like the touring cast of High School Musical.

And that’s when things work out.

Beware the bottle that’s not up to our expectations. I’ve been known to carry on for days. I leave the water running in the men’s room. I take all the toothpicks and after-dinner mints. I try to get them to comp me a cheese course. And when that doesn’t happen I’ve been known to pick all the flowers off the bee balm growing along the sidewalk outside. I’m as bratty as a sugared-up kid at FAO Schwarz.

Why do I order wine in a restaurant if it’s such a big production? Same reason people sit in a hunting blind or go to Alaska to prospect for gold: you never know what you’ll find.

Restaurants often have wines that are so highly allocated they’re unavailable in the regular retail market. And even if the price is a little steeper than retail, the wine becomes a great contra alto in the opera of dining out.

Here are some ground rules: Look for something you’ve never had before; look for something you’ve never heard of before; look for something you love but haven’t had in a while; try a new varietal; ask the wait staff for a suggestion. Close your eyes, open the menu and point. If it’s a dog, move up or down to the next selection. This opens your horizons and keeps you from spoiling the dining experience by furiously obsessing over the list like a med student stuyding for the MCATs.

This week I looked at lots of wine lists, in person and online. My goal with each was to find a nice wine, on a large wine list, in five minutes or less. Here are some area restaurants’ wine lists and my version of speed dating with them. (I consulted the Hippo Best of Everything 2007 Readers’ Poll and various other compilations; however, some establishments did not have their wine lists online.)
• Puritan Back Room (245 Hooksett Road, Manchester): 28 wine choices on their modest everyday-drinking-style wine list, plus Dom Perignon to celebrate any occasion. My choice: Chateau Ste. Michelle Johannisberg Riesling. Time: 47 seconds. Why: Goes with everything.
• Cotton (75 Arms Park Dr., Manchester): 50 or more wines, great prices. My choice: Franciscan Cabernet Sauvignon. Time: Two minutes, 29 seconds. Why: You can get it by the bottle or the glass.
• CR Sparks (18 Kilton Road, Bedford): Six-page wine list with more than 200 wines, reasonable prices. My choice: Voyager Estate Margaret River Chardonnay. Time: 1 minute 52 seconds. Why: I love Margaret River! Runner up: Truchard Pinot Noir, a hard-to-get gem.
• 55 Degrees (55 N. Main St., Concord) 45 unique selections broken out by style, under headings like “Bold,” “Rich” and “Powerful.” My choice: Albarino, Salneval, Riax Baixas, Spain. Time: 3 minutes 19 seconds. Why: Spanish wines are great for the summer.
• Michael Timothy’s (212 Main St., Nashua): More than 100 wines. Huge by-the-glass selection. Choice: Hacienda Monasterio, Ribera del Duero, Spain. Time: 2 minutes 44 seconds. Why: It’s on every well-heeled wine list in the Granite State. Runner Up: Ridge Montbello, pricey but rare!.