February 13, 2012

Navigating Valentine Wine with Sasha! {Naptime Simple Tips}

I love drinking good wine, but personally find it daunting to select a good wine on my own. In fact, I usually find myself chatting up the sommelier or wine store owner to find something I think I might like before I make a commitment to buying anything. Today I am invited my friend Sasha of Spin the Bottle NY to share her tips for buying wine. Specifically, I wanted her to share suggestions for buying wine at restaurants and getting the most of out a bottle for Valentine’s Day. After all, I firmly believe us parents deserve a great bottle of wine and if we are going to splurge, let’s do it right!
1) Navigating a wine list can be a minefield – what are your tips for picking out delicious, budget-friendly wines at a restaurant where the wine list is several pages long?

It doesn’t have to be a minefield. I always check out a restaurant’s wine list online before I visit. Pick out a few wines in your price range and spend a few minutes researching them. It’s a worthwhile investment of your time. Better to spend the evening gazing into the eyes of your loved one that staring at a wine list, no?

Tell the sommelier what you’re looking for, and don’t shy away from establishing a price range. Tell her you want something under $40 — or if you feel awkward saying a dollar amount out loud, point to a wine in your price range on the list and tell her you want something for around that price. Mention some wines you know you like (or ones you don’t) to give her a sense of your taste.

Word to the wise: asking for a “dry” wine is virtually meaningless. Almost every wine on the list will be made in a “dry” style. If by “dry” you mean mouth-drying and a little bitter, like oversteeped tea, then you really mean “tannic.” (Wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, can be quite tannic.) And if you mean zesty and mouth-puckering, like a glass of tart lemonade, then you mean “acidic.” (Sauvignon Blanc is the quintessential example here.) Being precise with these terms will help you get what you want.

Finally, look beyond the tried-and-true (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Napa) for the best values. Southern France and Spain are two regions I always look to, as well as off-the-beaten track regions in California. And this is just me, but I rarely order Pinot Noir-based wines when I’m out at a restaurant. It’s very tough to get this grape right. Inexpensive Pinots aren’t much to write home about–and good Pinots at a restaurant mark-up can be seriously pricey.

2) A lot of us parents celebrate Valentine’s Day at home after the kids are in bed! How do you recommend picking out a couple great bottles of wine at the local shop to go with your meal, without breaking the bank?

The most important thing is to develop a great relationship with the staff at your local wine store. Be a repeat customer — and give them plenty of feedback on the wines you do and don’t like (and why).

Also, choose your price range and stick to it. Don’t be intimidated into spending more; these days there are delicious wines at every price.

I wouldn’t stress too much about finding the “perfect” wine for what you’re serving, but if you do want some matching guidance from the wine store staff, be specific. How you’re preparing something (grilled vs. fried, for example) and what you’re pairing with (sauces, side dishes) can have a big impact on what to pair it with.

3) Some of us (i.e Me) often get lured in by pretty packaging. What should someone look for on a wine label when shopping for wine?

Some wine labels are incredibly detailed — others much less so. It might depend on the type of wine, where it’s from…and the predilections of the winery’s marketing department!

One wine label line item that’s mandatory: alcohol content. Most wines are in the 12-15% range. (Setting aside fortified wines such as port, sherry and the like.) This is one drinker’s opinion, but once you get north of 13.5-14%, you’re talking about wine that packs a serious kick! Everyone’s taste is different, but a lot of wine cognoscenti criticize these very alcoholic wines, as alcohol tends to blunt other flavors. If you’re talking about a romantic dinner for two where you anticipate splitting a bottle of wine, you would want to look for wines with more moderate alcohol levels.

And please, have no shame about choosing a wine for its label! One wine region that gets a lot of love (no pun intended) for its labels around Valentine’s Day is Saint-Amour. These are medium-bodied wines from the Saint-Amour region in Beaujolais. They’re really food-friendly, delicious, and versatile wines — often with amorous themes on their labels!

4) What is your favorite menu (including wine!) for a romantic Valentine’s Day meal?

Usually we opt for meals that have a special meaning. A few years ago, my husband and I made b’stilla because we had eaten in during our vacation in Bandol, in southern France. We served it with a wine from the region. It wasn’t a “perfect” match — but it made sense to us and reminded us of our amazing trip.

5) Very important question: Wine & Chocolate. Best pairing ever? I think so. Why does it work so well and how do you pick the best wines to go with rich desserts?
Sacrilege perhaps, but I’m not a fan. Any wine that’s intense enough to stand up to chocolate is a wine I’d prefer to savor on its own. That being said, two classic chocolate partners are port and Banyuls — that’s a rich, sweet, fortified wine from  France’s Roussillon region. Also, I don’t think chocolate and champagne work well together. Champagne fresh, lively character clashes with the rich, unctuousness of chocolate.
6) I have a weakness for bubbly wines. How do you recommend incorporating them into a romantic meal?

As much as possible! Sparkling wine is great with any number of foods. You can start off with a lighter style, like a Blanc de Blanc champagne, that marries particularly well with salty or fried food. (It’s also great with sushi.) Try a fuller sparkling wine for your main course — think pink with Roederer Estate Brut Rosé from California or Avinyo Rosado Cava from Spain. There are even sparkling reds — Australia makes sparkling Shiraz, and there are some terrific Italian Lambruscos these days. Again, I don’t love sparkling and chocolate together, but if you have a fruit dessert planned, Moscato d’Asti can be a delicious accompaniment.

7) What are one or two wines you think are worth the splurge this Valentine’s Day?

Valentine’s Day is a great opportunity to drink a wine with some age on it. What better way to toast your enduring love? (Awww…) Try something you have stashed away that you’ve been meaning to open, or else a bottle from your local wine shop. (You’ll want to hit a store that specializes in wine, not just your local liquor store, to make sure they have a good selection and good storage for older bottles.)

As for me, I have a 1998 Hermitage (a Syrah-based wine from France’s Northern Rhône region) that’s begging to be opened.