Bottled Up

A crash course on wine

In search of a speedy wine tutorial, we turn to Mark Oldman, whose new book, Oldman's Guide to Outsmarting Wine (Penguin, 384 pp. $18.00), outlines 108 ways to cut through pretentious wine blather and score a topnotch, reasonably-priced bottle. Oldman kindly offered some quick tips when ordering vino in New York, as well as some of his favorite places to grab a glass.

What's the safest bet when ordering Pinot Grigio? I would avoid Pinot Grigio. Because it's so explosively popular among diners, there are a lot of overpriced, inferior renditions out there in restaurants. One of the pitfalls the average drinker experiences is over-reliance on this, Chardonnay, and Merlot. Diners often have to pay a comfort premium for these well-known choices, and they're often the least interesting on the wine list.

But what if you ask your server for a suggestion, and he isn't particularly knowledgeable or helpful? I'd go with some fail-safes. One is Pinot Noir. I call it Pivot Noir, because it's a red wine but light enough to please white-wine fans. It's sometimes a little pricey in restaurants, so I'd also suggest Beaujolais. It's fruity, and often has no bitterness. Also: Prosecco, Italian bubbly, because it's not so well known and not from France, it's usually one of the least expensive choices on the menu. It acts as a turbo charger for your appetite.

Choose your bottle at Discovery Wines
photo: Corina Zappia
Choose your bottle at Discovery Wines

Should I worry about the year? Unless you're planning to buy wine you'll lay out for and keep for years and years, don't even worry about vintage. It matters less than people think.

Do I look like a cheap bastard if I get the lowest-priced wine on the menu? Most of us gravitate toward the lowest, so you shouldn't feel bad about that. If discretion is important—hot date, client dinner, whatever—then point to prices on the list when you ask a server for suggestions. It doesn't always work, but some servers will catch on immediately. However, be aware of "second-seat" wines (the second-cheapest wine on the menu, what most people aim for so they don't drop a lot of cash but don't look too cheap). Some restaurateurs without integrity will take advantage of people's propensity to gravitate toward that spot and put wines in there they'd like to move, marking them up more than other bottles.

One final tip? Do not smell the cork. A lot of people think you're supposed to smell it, touch it, fondle it—that you can tell if a wine has gone bad that way. But just take that cork and put it aside. Please.

What are some bars with good wines you suggest in New York? My favorite right now is the Metrocafe & Wine Bar on 21st Street. It only opened about a year ago, and they have over 100 bottles of wine by the glass. Another inexpensive place is 'Ino, which is around Bedford Street. They have a great all-Italian list. D.O.C. Wine Bar on 7th street in Williamsburg has a lot of spectacular Sardinian wines. On the more expensive side, there is the Morrell Wine Bar around Rockefeller, and the restaurant Veritas—splendid wines by the glass.

 
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