Finding the Hidden Bargains on a Wine List

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Last week, Danny Meyer, CEO of New York's Union Square Hospitality Group, introduced a roster of new contributors from his acclaimed restaurants, including Union Square Cafe, Blue Smoke, and The Modern. This week's USHG column is from The Modern's Belinda Chang.

I am a card-carrying bargain hunter. Who isn't one these days? Drop me into a department store like the labyrinthine flagship Saks Fifth Avenue here in NYC—it's just a few blocks from my restaurant. Lead me into the store blindfolded and I can find that red-dot, slashed-price, mish-mash sale rack with no assistance, with just my nose for a bargain. There is no better feeling than when the shoes/suit/gadget fits both me and my credit card limit. It is especially satisfying when it is one of those things that no one else seems to have loved but me.

The mood is the same when a wine list is placed into my waiting hands, fingers wiggling in anticipation. It's not just that I disdain the sight of an empty wine glass in front of me. I also love that type of hunt. I have managed and written over a dozen wine lists in my decade-plus as a sommelier in both casual and fancy restaurants across the United States (among them: Charlie Trotter's, Big Bowl, and Osteria Via Stato in Chicago; The Fifth Floor in San Francisco; and now The Modern in New York). This experience gives me a perspective on wine treasure hunting that is slightly different from those of most of the clientele I serve on a daily basis at our tables at 9 West 53rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenue.

My circle of frequent dining companions in Manhattan is pretty exclusively—and, for me, pretty refreshingly—composed of non-restaurant folk: my little (much taller than me, though) brother is a pharmacist, his girlfriend is an MBA candidate, and my college buddies from Rice University in Houston work in education, law, and finance. They joke that when I ask them whether they would like to drink sparkling, white, or red with the meal, I don't even pause to hear their answers. Apparently, head buried in the wine list, I just excitedly launch into a litany of the bargains that I have discovered on the list at hand. I just ask for their opinions to be nice!

Oftentimes the least expensive wine on a wine list is the worst value and not a bargain at all.

How do I find those bargains on another sommelier's wine list? First of all, by bargain I am not referring to the least expensive wine on the wine list. In fact, oftentimes the least expensive wine on a wine list is the worst value and not a bargain at all. The lowest-end stuff usually has the highest mark-up. More than three times the cost is a typical mark-up, and sometimes it is even higher than that—beware! That $36 bottle probably cost the hotel restaurant less than $12. Sometimes it cost them closer to $9. (Although if the sommelier is good, even the least expensive wines on their lists will be delicious.) As a side note: I often find bargains at the top end of a wine list. I guess we sommeliers feel so guilty about all of those zeros behind the dollar sign that we just tack on a little itty bitty mark-up. That, and we want to actually taste the legendary wines that sleep in our cellars. Going big can have great rewards.

My definition of a bargain, a wine treasure, is a listing that has all of these qualities: it has great flavor, displays characteristic varietal and terroir traits, represents a producer with an interesting story and impressive integrity, is appropriate for the cuisine of the restaurant, and has a reasonable (or even wonderfully low) mark-up. It's not easy, but I almost always find something.

Here are a few more clues to help you on your next restaurant wine list treasure hunt:

Do your homework. Whether the restaurant has a single-page wine list or an 80-page, 20-pound tome, you can find it on the website or you can have the restaurant e-mail its list to you. All of Danny's USHG restaurants do this, and it is a great way to avoid the pressure-packed order-a-wine-stat-because-your-boss-is-giving-you-the-stink-eye-across-the-table scenario. This scenario often leads to an impulse choice that is rarely a bargain.

Peruse the list at your desk, ready to Google the going rate for the wine. The price transparency that the Internet provides the wine consumer these days is incredible. Just realize that retail pricing and restaurant pricing are two very different things. A little quick research can also make you sound really smart as you are rattling off the grape varietal percentages and vintage conditions that you just looked up to your date/client/in-laws.

Avoid Fifth Avenue properties. I love Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines just as much as the next über wine geek, but they rarely qualify as a bargain. These are the most expensive wines on my wine list, and the Pinot Noir grapes used to make this Red Burgundy at one of France's most venerable wine estates—if not the world's—are grown on some of the most expensive wine real estate anywhere. High property values ≠ wine bargains. For a bargain, instead look to where the grape-growing and wine-making is done by the equivalent of urban pioneers. There are wonderful bargains to be found in red Meritage blend wines from Washington State (as an alternative to Napa Cabernet or Bordeaux), flavorful Sagrantinos from Umbria (as an alternative to pricey, neighboring Super Tuscans), Anderson Valley California Pinot Noirs (as an alternative to Sonoma), and there are many, many more!

Figure out the sommelier's passion. Every sommelier has a pet wine and wishes that more guests would purchase and drink it. These wines are intentionally well-priced, sometimes really well-priced because we want to reward the drinker for being adventurous, smart, and just for doing and ordering the "right" thing. I've seen lists lately with amazing pricing and selections of Madiran, Virginia wines, Loire Valley Bourgeuil, sparkling Gruner, and Zweigelt—all great bargains on their respective lists. Tell me what you drink, and I will tell you who you are. Show me your wine list (mine can be found at www.themodernnyc.com) and I will also tell you who you are—well, that's another story.

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Belinda Chang joined Danny Meyer's restaurant The Modern as wine director in November 2007. She has been recognized by Food & Wine for her outstanding wine lists and nominated for the James Beard Foundation's "Outstanding Wine Service" Award. More

Recognized by Food & Wine for her outstanding wine lists, nominated for the James Beard Foundation's"Outstanding Wine Service" Award, and a national TV veteran, Belinda Chang joined Danny Meyer's restaurant The Modern as wine director in November 2007. Previously, she ruled the wine cellars of Chicago's top restaurants (Charlie Trotter's, Rick Tramonto's Osteria Via Stato) and San Francisco's Fifth Floor restaurant. Belinda has authored the wine notes for three cookbooks, including Charlie Trotter's Meat and Game and Rick Tramonto's Fantastico! and Osteria Cookbook, and she has written for several national publications. She has appeared on-stage educating restaurateurs, wine directors, and wine lovers at The National Restaurant Association Show, The Food and Wine Aspen Classic, and The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. She has also appeared on wine segments on CBS, NBC, and ABC in addition to hosting an episode of The Fine Living Network's "We Live Here" show. Her expertise can also be found in The New York Times, where she is a member of the tasting panel, Wine and Spirits Magazine, and The Sommelier Journal. A Chicago native, Belinda studied biochemistry at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
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