From cellar to the table


N0 matter where in the spectrum of wine drinking you fall, from curious newcomer to seasoned veteran, ordering wine always has potential pitfalls, from your selection to the server's presentation.

However, navigating wine lists and the tableside ritual is not so difficult. And there really is a reason why they pour you a taste, but it might not be what you think it is. So, let's set the record straight.

Ordering wine ultimately begins and ends with you, the diner. Along the way though, you have two, and sometimes three, invaluable allies: the wine list itself, your server and sometimes a sommelier, or wine steward, whose role is to help guide diners to the wine best suited to their evening.

'I'm on the floor five nights a week with the sole goal of finding people the right wine for their meal and their budget,' says Tysan Pierce, sommelier at the Heathman Restaurant.

Though the Heathman is one of only a few restaurants in Portland with a full-time sommelier, there often is a person on the staff who has wine knowledge and is available to help customers find an ideal bottle.

The wine list itself should contain all the information you need for an informed decision and be organized so you can take it in quickly and easily. The producer's name, the region the wine is from, the grape varietal (in some cases indicated by the region) and the vintage should all be listed, as well as price. Given these facts, you can narrow your selection quite a bit.

If you're new to wine, or the list is full of unfamiliar names, don't be afraid to ask for help. Your server should be able to ask a few questions about what you're looking for, then guide you to a strong choice within your price range.

Not really sure what you're looking for? Don't sweat it. Good servers always know a few bottles on the list that are excellent all-around wines, sure to please most palates.

Once you've scanned the list, skipped the truly unpronounceable options and found something intriguing, go ahead and order it. Remember what the vintage was. When your server brings out the bottle and presents it to you, it's not just to look official. While it's his or her responsibility to grab the right bottle (a restaurant may have different wines by the same producer, or multiple vintages), you're the final pair of eyes.

Once the bottle is opened and poured for tasting Ñ and you, as the 'host,' should taste it, not offer the taste to someone else Ñ there's really only one thing you're checking for: flawed wine. That is, wine that has spoiled or oxidized because of a faulty or chemically tainted cork or improper storage (usually too hot).

Tainted, or 'corked,' wine has a distinct moldy odor reminiscent of wet newspaper. And oxidized wine tastes flat, with all the flavors muted and dull; in short, bad.

You really are not being asked if you like your selection Ñ you did make it after all. Unless the server recommended something based on your criteria and then delivered a wine which was utterly different, simply being disappointed with your choice is not grounds for sending the wine back.

Most restaurants will strive to keep the customer happy, but you've got the tools to end up with a bottle you'll love well before the wine actually hits the glass, so put them to use.

Otis Rubottom is a food and wine writer whose column will appear each Friday in Cue.