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Leave it to the wine guy

Times Staff Writer

Almost anyone who’s ever been asked to order wine for a group of friends at a restaurant or to bring a bottle of wine to someone’s house for dinner has probably felt at least a shiver of apprehension.

“What if I choose something they don’t like?” or -- in a restaurant --"What if they think I picked something too expensive? Or too cheap?”

Given that the average cost of wines in my home cellar is probably about $40 to $45, under what circumstances and to which guests do I serve any of the handful of high-end wines I purchased at auction before prices skyrocketed -- say, my ’75 Petrus or ’90 La Tache or ’67 Yquem? And when do I serve an $18 Chianti? Those can be difficult, sensitive questions. And the answers have much less to do with how good a friend someone is than with how much he or she would appreciate the difference between a rare, pricier wine and a more modest wine of which I may have multiple bottles.

I would never open a cheap bottle just because someone isn’t into wine. That would be unforgivably tacky. I tend to save my inexpensive bottles -- those costing about $8 to $12 apiece -- for casual, midweek pizza and other takeout family dinners at home.

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If you do a little research beforehand and ask good questions of a knowledgeable wine merchant, you should be able to buy eminently drinkable wines in that price range. But I wouldn’t take those wines to a nice restaurant or to a friend’s home or serve them to guests unless we were having something really casual -- say pizza or fried chicken while we watched the Oscars or sports on TV. And I would certainly take or serve my good $18 Chianti or something similar if I knew that it was appropriate to the food being served.

Gut instincts

It might seem snobbish to say that my decision-making process sometimes includes the thought, “Well, so-and-so wouldn’t really appreciate this wine.” But that is, inevitably, part of the thought process with high-end wines, especially when I have only one or two bottles of a given wine.

There are no rigid guidelines in these situations; I tend to just go with my gut -- “What do I feel like drinking tonight?” or “What will go well with what we’re likely to eat?” But being an enthusiast and a sharer, not a hoarder, I find a common thought for me with friends is, “Gee, so-and-so would really like this. Who cares what it cost or whether it’s my only bottle? Let’s drink it tonight.”

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I have often bought specific wines only because I knew that certain friends would really like them.

For five or six years in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, for example, our family had dinner virtually every Sunday night with another family, alternating between our house and theirs. The man loved Rhone wines, so even though I much prefer Burgundy and Barolo, I often bought Rhones precisely so that we could serve them at our Sunday night dinners together.

Bringing a bottle of wine for someone you don’t know well, however, can be a tricky affair. Like most folks, when we’re invited to dinner, either Lucy or I usually ask if there’s anything we can bring. The most common answers are “nothing” or -- especially with folks who know about my wine cellar -- “wine.”

In those cases, I ask, “Based on what you plan to serve, is there any particular kind of wine you’d like me to bring?”

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When I bring wine, it’s not with the assumption that it will necessarily be poured that night. Some people plan their food-wine pairings carefully and don’t want to change those pairings just to accommodate a guest’s bottle. So while I always bring something good, I don’t usually bring something really expensive that I have only one or two of, just in case I don’t get to at least taste it that night.

I am, however, content to open such a bottle for dinner parties at home -- even if that wasn’t my original choice -- when a guest visiting the cellar as part of a preprandial house tour spots a bottle and says, something like, “Oh, wow, I’ve always wanted to try one of those.”

No true wine lover could turn a deaf ear to such a request. And those requests come with the territory, with being the designated “wine guy” in my various circles.

That responsibility devolved upon me among friends, relatives and colleagues long before I either had a wine cellar or began writing this column. I’m the guy who gets the wine list and picks the wines in restaurants, the guy who chooses and buys the wines for holidays, dinner parties and other gatherings. Just how this came to be is not altogether clear to me since several friends know at least as much as I do about wine -- more in some cases -- and many certainly have better palates than I do.

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But I haven’t shrunk from the responsibility of being the designated wine guy.

It’s not terribly difficult to sit in a restaurant, wine list in hand, and say to your tablemates, “OK, what does everyone feel like drinking tonight? French? Italian? California? You want to start with white and then go to red or stay with white all the way or start with a light red and go to a heavier red or.... ?”

Touchy questions

What do you do, though, when folks say -- as they often do at my table -- “You decide, David.”

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It helps, of course, if you know your friends’ tastes well enough to make those decisions. Price is a bigger problem. When you’re splitting the check, it’s difficult to know with any certainty how much anyone else might be willing to spend for wine.

So amid my round of red/white/country/variety questions, I usually try to include “price range” if I can do so without giving offense and if I think our dining companions might not want to spend as much as I otherwise might (though I don’t buy big-ticket wines in restaurants). This usually works fine. But I can recall at least one instance when it backfired badly.

We were having dinner in New York with old friends of Lucy’s, a couple who were temporarily strapped for cash because the wife was out of work. When I asked my wine questions, she said, “You pick, David, but nothing more than $60, please.”

OK. The restaurant was on the Upper West Side, and there were very few decent bottles in that price range. But there was one, at about $52, as I recall. When we’d finished it, with more food still to come, I said something like, “OK, do we want another bottle? Same thing -- or something else? And if it’s something else, is $60 the absolute maximum? There’s a pretty good bottle at $65.”

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They said they wanted a second bottle of the same wine, but when we left the restaurant -- after the wife in the other couple had already left, a few minutes earlier, to pick up her young daughter at a friend’s house -- her husband loudly berated me as we walked down the street.

“You humiliated my wife,” he said, over and over, in several different ways, with increasing vehemence. “You asked about price once. You got an answer. You didn’t have to ask again. That was unspeakably rude and insensitive.”

I apologized for having inadvertently offended him and his wife, but, I said, I wasn’t sure how rigid the $60 limit was and hadn’t thought the $5 extra would be that big a deal, especially since the first bottle was $8 under the $60 limit. Lucy agreed with him.

She still thinks I was wrong. They were already embarrassed by their financial plight, she says, and instead of being sensitive to that, I compounded their discomfort with my second question about price. Our friendship has survived, though.

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Had that dinner taken place in Los Angeles, we probably wouldn’t have had a problem; wine prices are generally lower here, and I usually take my own wine to restaurants in L.A.. More often than not, I bring a red from my cellar and figure we’ll order a white from the restaurant’s wine list. Because reds tend to be more expensive than whites, especially in restaurants, picking a modestly priced restaurant white is not usually an excruciating experience.

But I still have to decide what to bring -- a decision based on the likely menu and wine list at the restaurant, on what these particular friends might want to drink and, again, on how much they might be willing to spend.

(We would split the cost of any bottle we bought at the restaurant when we split the entire bill at the end of the evening, so I’ve always felt that the proper etiquette with a bottle from my cellar is that we split my original cost on the bottle. This saves everyone money since it’s always less than we would pay for a heavily marked-up restaurant bottle. Everyone we’ve eaten with has seemed to appreciate both the savings and the wine -- which is generally older and better than what most restaurants have at the same price.)

Usually -- unless they’re good friends, whose tastes and financial circumstances I know reasonably well -- I ask the same questions beforehand, on the phone, that I would ask at the table. I mention several options and a price range.

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Most folks tend to leave those decisions up to me, though -- which puts the burden on my shoulders. It’s not entirely a burden, of course.

One of the many great things about wine is that it’s a pleasure most enjoyed when it’s shared. The better the wine, the greater the pleasure of both drinking it and sharing it.

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com. To read previous “Matters of Taste” columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-taste.


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