Restaurant Wine List Tips When Your Choices Are Endless

Posted on: March 18th, 2018 by

Navigating a big restaurant wine list is daunting. Possibly scary. For a geek like me, it can also be hella fun.

A page from a restaurant wine list.

I was reminded of this when I was at Nice Matin, a French restaurant in New York City’s Upper West Side. The wine list there is excellent. (Not the one pictured, BTW.)

And it is big. And leather-bound. And full of French wine. It has true heft. If you dropped it from a foot above your table, it would land with a resounding thump/thwack.

But it reminded me of a a strategy to deal with the large restaurant wine list, deep in verticals and back vintages.

I relate this advice and my (excellent) experience at Nice Matin on Snacky Tunes, which you can listen to on this handy player:

[I come in at the 40:09 mark. But listen to the whole show, featuring Chef Greg Baxtrom of New York City’s Olmsted, who talks about sustainability, urban gardening, and brunch. The musical guest is Desert Sharks, who describe themselves as “…four brooding brunettes (who) came together via Craigslist personals to create driving garage rock tunes with a touch of surf.”]

But here’s the gist of my segment on the podcast:

A huge list is either going to panic a novice, who doesn’t know where to begin, or send an expert down the rabbit hole for a stupefying amount of time. Neither are good for you, especially if you are dining with one person or more. (Of course, the first point I should make is ask for help from a sommelier, wine director, or knowledgable employee. But here’s how to focus in on the hidden gems.)

In this case, I glossed over the numerous selections of Burgundy and Bordeaux to zip to a section called (something along the lines of) “Other White Wines.” It’s a hodgepodge of things that don’t fit into a larger category. And it’s often where you can find some interesting bottles and bargains. Also, it’s A LOT shorter selection. Consider it a mini-oasis within an ocean of wine. (Wait, an oasis is in the desert. Well, you know what I mean.)

(If white wine isn’t your thing, look for an “Other Red Wines” counterpart.)

The bottle I found?

Restaurant Wine List Gem: Grosset Polish Hill Riesling (Claire Valley, Australia) 2010

Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2010 It was $81 on the list. Wine Searcher has the average retail price for the 2017 at $50. So to get a vintage that’s eight years old for that price is a good deal.

(Yes, if I had a brain I would have purchased the wine right on release, cellared it for years, and opened it at home with some fish tacos.)

But, dang! This is an iconic Australian wine and it’s DRY, DRY, DRY, folks. If you ever see an Aussie Riesling on a restaurant wine list and you like dry whites, buy it. They are always very limey and they can age forever. This Grosset from the famous Polish Hill vineyard was killer, super-fresh and very interesting. And fun to drink

I’d also like to note that it didn’t come to the table (ok, bar) ice-cold. It was slightly cool and even at that temperature was excellent. When a white wine doesn’t need to be arctic to be enjoyed (like a cheap beer), you know you’ve got something good. (The bottle was subsequently put on ice.)

Recommended Wines and Producers

On Snacky Tunes I mentioned I’d give some more Australian Riesling recos. First, a tip. If it says “Clare Valley” or “Eden Valley” on the label, get it. These are two great areas. Producers to look for besides Grosset include Pewsey Vale, Jim Barry, and Pikes.

Oh, and what if you were walking through Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and passed me while I was talking to someone about Australian Riesling, but thought I said “Austrian”?


Riesling from Austria is equally awesome. Very dry. In general, I’d say a bit richer. Some producers to look out for: Loimer, Prager, Gobelsburger, Brundlemayer.

So when confronted with a massive wine list, look for that rogues’ gallery of wines, the rando reds and whatever whites.

Life update: Last week was my final one at Wine Enthusiast. Grateful for two-plus years of Champagne flute and oaky white wine defending, along with working with a memorable cast of characters. What is next for me? Hmm. I’d be interested in making wine on the West Coast, perhaps in NY, or around the globe. Continuing to live in NYC and getting a writing/editing gig that’s not necessarily food/wine related. Moving to Philly? If you have any advice or leads, send them my way.

View my LinkedIn profile.

Peruse my writing portfolio on Contently.

Wine list pic by Lou Stejskal via Flickr.

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