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The "secret codes" for buying better wine


“Selected by our own restaurant manager” usually means a list of unknown producers and wholesalers dumped bad years.
The monumental sixty page tomes produced by those establishments described by Michelin as having “a particularly interesting wine list” usually means there are not enough hours in the day to go through it and by the time you have reached page ten your guests have ordered in advance and you are losing the will to live.
And the restaurant where having ordered a wine from the list the waiter brings and shows a bottle hoping you don’t notice of an awful year that is not the one you ordered, pointing the fact out brings the response “it is all we have left” hoping you still accept it.
And the bringing of a bottle to the table that is not what you ordered at all and procedding to open it with the label facing away again hopingyou don’t notice and when you do saying ‘well I have opened it now’ as if that makes it all right.
Plus has anyone had the suggestion from the wine waiter, Italian, that a particular wine comes from their own vineyard and you are expected to believe it, I could go on but I wont, does it only happen to me ?

split this topic #42

7 posts were merged into an existing topic: Do you trust restaurant wine recommendations?


I’ve moved a few of the excellent restaurant-specific comments to a related thread (see above).

I was hoping to make this conversation a tick-list of keywords to look out for (so as to know what to choose and what to avoid) rather than a conversation about restaurants lists per-se.

I have been wondering about another word that makes me look more carefully:


I know that is may not relate to the style of the wine, but IN GENERAL I have found that there is excitement to be found in wines that come from smaller and more extreme regions, and what fits the bill better than an island?

Whether it is as large as Sicily, or as small as Santorini (or many other wine-producing Greek islands), or maybe as unique as Madeira or Corsica, there is something special about them. If a restaurant or bar has put them on the list, they want to sell them so they’ve probably done this for a reason - either it will be an excellent match, they have a unique connection they can tell you about, or they are keenly priced.

Either way, there is still a glimmer of magic to this word on a wine list for me


Of course nowadays any restaurant that has a half decent list will put in on their website. I always look up the list before I visiting a new place and check out the list. There has to be a very good reason to eat at a place without a decent and well priced list. Unless of course I’m driving, when I don’t care.:laughing:


I see the word zippy a lot not sure if it is one to avoid… but for some reason ‘Two and s half men’ jumps to mind and puts me off a bit


Yep, I’ll regularly do this. Sometimes it can end in disappointment if the online list is out of date and the wine you are considering is no longer available so I usually shortlist a few and decide based on menu choice


BYOB and Corkage are two words I look for first! :grinning:

After that, avoidance of overly waffly descriptions - I like to know producer, grape, vintage and price - it’s amazing how often you don’t see all four of the above.


I’m afraid I use “garrigue” in my own tasting notes, especially for Bandol, some southern Rhônes, and other Mourvèdre-based wines, and in general, Mediterranean wines. It’s not unreasonable, and it’s a very distinctive set of aromas (wild oregano, thyme, dry thorny bushes, you know, that distinctive set of aromas near beaches in the Costa Brava, Balearic Islands, etc. etc.)


I do the same. I look at the restaurant wine list on the website, study it closely and quickly (yes, it can be done - you get good at scanning them) and basically that decides if I want to even eat there. If they have an awful list, or outrageous markups, I just avoid the restaurant altogether.


Oh, there’s nothing wrong with it. What I’m looking for are the “magic words” that a casual wine drinker might look out for on restaurant or bar lists that actually might mean something - either positively or negatively.

‘Garrigue’ is a rather specialist term, and it might well be dropped from a description on a wine list to save space or avoid confusion if the establishment is not sure that it will matter for the wine / customers … therefore, if they DO use it, it means it it probably there for a reason and helps me to spot a potentially interesting wine! :slight_smile:


There isn’t anything wrong with using “garrigue” or similar words in your own tasting notes, but on a restaurant list ? if it is used on a restaurant list most would not have a clue what it meant but many would be impressed if you used the word even if you did not know yourself what it meant.
Many restaurant lists in an effort to sound ‘knowledgeable’ are simply pretentious, stones and gravel pebbles, now they are inert so there is no taste so why use the words, the last time I had a stone in my mouth I was about five and got a good slap for being a stupid boy !

Definite undertones of the sea ! for a vineyard near the Med, really, I can see the table talk about that wine "reminds me a bit of Brighton on a damp Sunday, no no it has to be Canvey Island,


When in the wine trade I was advised to always take the house wine on the basis that if a restaurant can’t do a decent house wine then one can’t trust any of the other offerings.


Seems like pretty sound advice to me!


Anything decent to recommend from the Isle of Wight ?:wine_glass::roll_eyes:


I’ve seen some bonkers descriptions of wines on lists before, I always call to mind the Volnay described as ‘Bold and brassy’ (can’t comment on whether the wine was, but the price tag was certainly brassy), this was next to an Aussie Shiraz described as ‘smooth and mellow’. I am therefore deeply sceptical of the descriptions as they are a) subjective anyway, and b) restaurants often feel they have to have these descriptions so just make stuff up.

Not sure if this counts as ‘code’, but I do have an approach:

0. Close my eyes and fix a sensible price I want to pay for a reasonable bottle of wine. I do this before opening the menu to avoid the ‘decoy-effect’ see image below image

1. Scan the whole list to see if there is anything I recognise. If I spot something I am familiar with I then can calibrate the rest of the list. For example not long ago I was in a restaurant serving 2011 Ch. Musar for >£100. This tells you what the rest of the list is probably looking like in terms of markup and pure cheek. The same restaurant had nothing under £25, which given the markup on the Musar I took to be fairly low-end.

2. Vintage (Bordeaux and Burgundy especially) I look to see if vintages are listed. If they aren’t then it will be off-years getting dumped.

3. I search for off-the-beaten-track grapes and regions which I know I like. If there is something way off piste it is sometimes worth a punt. Completely niche grapes I often find outperform on a restaurant wine-list next to staples like pinot or cabs.

If the restaurant isn’t being silly on test 1, and has vintages listed on test 2, I’ll entertain a well-known style or variety like a claret. If it struggles with the tests then I’ll likely only go for a curve-ball.


I love the ‘decoy price’ illustration! :grinning: It reminds me of the ‘shifting base line’ concept, which - since acquainting myself with - has made certain aspects in life make so much more sense!

I like your (very logical) approach, too! :+1:


There’s also the “reverse decoy” phenomenon to catch people who just want a bottle of wine - i.e. the lowest priced one is there to make you buy something a bit pricier, to avoid looking like a cheapskate. Not of course a criticism that would worry me.


Anything with a (recent) medal.

OK… long answer. In France, we’ve all been there: faced with many metre run of shelves of near identical bottles of Bordeaux Supérieur (other AOC are available) I narrow it down by picking only those which have a gold concourse medal. Doesn’t guarantee the bottle is any good, but at least some independent tasting panel feel the wine lacks glaring faults.

Burgundy AOC: Tastevin label , never failed me yet.

UK restaurant wines: Sadly I cant help you. The system of mark-up’s means that a half decent bottle of chianti @ under £20 TWS, costs £40 in a restaurant and you have to pay that or more to get anything decent (I refuse to pay £40 for a bottle of wine) : Stick to beer.


Here’s a more cynical answer:

Some Gastropubs, and most certainly many restaurants, don’t have the time (or knowledge) to source their wine. So they ‘outsource’ it to a firm that supplies the wine & writes the wine menu. Secure in the knowledge that there is a solid ‘X’ percentage markup for both restaurant and agent.

The staff at the pub (etc) have no idea what they are selling.

You the punter are on the wrong end of a multiple markup equation.

SO… the ‘secret’ code for getting a decent glass of wine: find out if the restaurant manager ACTUALLY buys the wine direct, and knows anything about it.


Yes to all this, but you can refine it a little: go for the local and/or relevant wine (in Spain or a Spanish restaurant, the Spanish): if they take care on any of them, it will be there. Other strategies:

Alsace is often a safe bet for white (obscure to some, but I hope not to anyone in this Community). Red is harder: I don’t know of an equivalent reliable but under-known red region. (No, I don’t touch red Alsace.)

The back of the list at restaurants with endless over-priced Bordeaux (where they hide a few Chilean/Argentine, etc.) . (The same can work in California, in reverse: there may be some good value European lurking at the back.)