At the Airport Grill, where my dad used to take us for a hamburger in the 60's,
the bathroom choice was "Pilots" or "Stewardesses." A slam-dunk lawsuit today,
still, you knew where you stood (or sat, if you were a stewardess.) It certainly
beats having to decide if you're a Buoy or a Gull, a Turtle or a Tortoise, or which
of the odd silhouettes most resembles you and your clothing. Easier, too, than my
neighborhood hangout, Mels, where the triple choice of Men, Women and Ladies
requires more reflection than I'm usually in the mood for.
A too-cute wine list scratches the same blackboard. I applaud restaurants for the effort, but headings like "Grills, Thrills and Wild Things," "Cutting Edge," and "Silver Linings," raise more questions than they answer.
Attempting to describe wine makes sense if you share a common language. Alas, many terms mean one thing on wine lists, another to professional tasters and a third to the average diner. Let's decode some common ones.
Dry: Refers to sugar, or lack of it. Does not mean mouth-puckering, rough, tooth-coating or bitter. Those are the work of tannins and acids. Dry wine can be smooth as silk. High-alcohol wine, like Viognier or Zinfandel, sometimes seems sweet, even with little or no sugar. Taste a little rubbing alcohol and you'll see.
Rich: If they made Shiraz-flavored Koolaid and you used seven packets for one pitcher, you'd have rich. Also known as concentrated or extracted, it means more color and flavor.
Fruity: Does not mean sweet. Arguably, all wine should be fruity - it's made from fruit, for heaven's sake! If you smell peach, pineapple, blackberry, and, yes, even grape, the wine is fruity. (If you pick up gooseberry, you're faking it. Gooseberries are a hoax perpetuated by wine critics, and do not, in fact, exist. Quince and Bramble, two other common wine descriptors, do exist, but no one really knows what are.) On a wine list, fruity usually means simple: you taste the fruit and nothing but the fruit.
Floral: smells like perfume, flowers, or the soap in the guest bathroom that everyone's afraid to unwrap.
Spicy: Exotic. Can refer to anything in the spice rack. Gewurztraminer is always described as spicy because, a) that's what Gewurtz means and b) there aren't any other things that smell like it. Spicy in a Syrah means cinnamon and black-pepper-up-your-nose.
Body: A tactile thing: the glop factor. Light-bodied is skim milk or water. Full-bodied is heavy cream, honey or 10-W-40.
Big! Huge! Blockbuster! A Monster!: Three possible meanings. With California Zinfandel, it refers to how your head will feel the next morning; that is, the wine packs a punch. In the case of Cabernet or Barollo, it means tannins like a three-day-old beard. Either the wine is too young, or you're meant to tough it out, saying things like, "Now THERE'S a wine!" Applied to other reds, it means super-rich and full-bodied. Beware; when it comes to food, blockbuster wines are about as friendly as a Sumo wrestler with diaper rash.
Soft: This term sells oceans of Merlot every year. It means not enough acid or tannin to last, refresh or excite. Lemonade without the lemons. No complexity, nothing that would tax your brain. It's a plot, can't you see?? They think you're too low brow to appreciate anything better than pablum. They want to turn you into pod people! Forget soft wine! Get out of that ghetto, man! Make like an infinitive and split!
If you follow this guide and still aren't crazy about the wine they bring, give it a chance with your meal. Under whelming sipping wine can make beautiful music with food. But go easy on it, or you could find yourself in front of two doors in a hallway, wondering if you're a Porpoise or a Dolphin.
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