Pro Tips: a new series on Joy the Baker wherein I ask my expert friends loads of questions about their field and get the nitty gritty for all of us. Previously: Ask A Financial Planner
Today I’m talking with one of my very best friends, Whitney Adams. Whitney is a sommelier, wine writer, wine traveler, and YouTube sensation. I love Whitney’s approach to wine: it’s playful, practical, not too stuffy, and just totally down to earth. She’s made the wine world feel accessible to me, and I’m still drinking $15 wine… now it’s just good $15 dollar wine.
I asked Whitney some layman’s questions about ordering wine at restaurants and finding a good bottle at the grocery store. Here are her thoughts. They’ll be helpful to all of us when we’re staring an entire aisle of Kendall Jackson straight in the face.
First let’s talk about ordering wine in a restaurant. What’s a reasonable price to pay for a bottle of wine at a restaurant?
Whitney: A $20 dollar bottle of wine at the wine shop will be around $50 at a restaurant (although markups vary), so I like to hover in the $50-75 dollar range at a restaurant because that will get me a solid bottle of wine that won’t break the bank. If you’re buying a $30 bottle in restaurant, that’s probably a pretty cheap bottle of wine out in the world and why even bother to pay the overhead for it?
How do you order wine if you’re intimidated and feel like you don’t have a wine language?
Whitney: If the restaurant has a sommelier or wine director, ask for them. Don’t be afraid to have a conversation – that’s what they’re there for! And it’s more likely you’ll end up with a better wine than if you just blindly pointed at the list and picked something random. First, be clear about what you want to pay. Don’t be shy about your budget. It’s also helpful to know if you want to pair wine to your meal, or if you just want to drink something delicious. Give them as much direction as possible. Tell them what you usually drink and enjoy at home and have a few key examples on hand, like California Pinot or rustic Italian reds. Even if their list has neither, they will hopefully be able to find a great alternative.
Tip: ask for a taste of one or two of their wines by the glass (the bottles are already open) as a litmus test so you can say, “Oh this is too dry for me.” or “I want something lighter and less fruity than this.”
When is it appropriate to bring your own bottle of wine to a restaurant?
Whitney: There are a few times it’s appropriate. Like, if it’s a special occasion and/or you have a bottle that you’ve been saving? Bring it! If that restaurant doesn’t have the same wine already on the list, go for it. Just check their corkage policy so there are no surprises.
I also love bringing interesting bottles to hole in the wall (but delicious) mom and pop places like Chinese dim sum or spicy Thai or Korean BBQ. These places tend to have very low or no corkage fee and won’t be offended if you bring more than a few bottles to play around with, especially if their list strictly consists of “white” or “red” wine and light beer.
But wait… is it super tacky to bring your own wine to a restaurant?
Whitney: It can be slightly tacky to go into a restaurant that has a great wine list and bring in a meh bottle of wine because you’re trying to save money. Depending on the price of the bottle, after corkage, you might not even save that much.
If the wine is something special to you and you think it would pair well with the food, go for it. If it’s a really awesome or special bottle, it’s nice to offer a taste to the sommelier. We love when that happens.
Bottom line, just don’t show up to a restaurant with some Trader Joe’s Lambrusco.
As a sommelier in a restaurant, what do you wish people asked you?
Whitney: My dream customer is someone who asks me to share what I like with them, someone interested in what’s getting me excited and wants to hear about why it’s so cool. They are open-minded and adventurous and they trust me.
Now let’s talk about grocery store wine. HOW do you approach a grocery store wine aisle and find a good bottle of wine?
Whitney: Honestly, I don’t shop for wine at grocery stores. There are so many amazing wine shops in Los Angeles that it would be a crime. You can find much better values in the $20 and under price point at independent wine shops. That being said, not everyone has access to wine shops with good selections where they live. And there are times when I travel that I don’t either. So when I need to get wine at the grocery store, I stick to imports in the $10-$15. Anything pricier and it’s not worth the extra cash. Because any wine in the grocery store isn’t really gonna blow your mind, so don’t let it take your dollars too. You can definitely find a decent Spanish or French red in the grocery over a California red at the same price.
How important is it to go to a wine store?
Whitney: Going to a wine store is all about the experience. You’re exposed to wines that are carefully selected and sold by people who are passionate about them. You can walk into a wine store and have an actual conversation about what you like and what you don’t like, even in the simplest terms, just to get started. It’s about experimenting, but you have a higher chance of getting something you’re actually going to like because someone helped you through. And if you keep coming back, you can let them know what you did and didn’t like from the last stock-up. The staff will start to really get your palate and know what to recommend.
When you’re buying anything in life, where you buy something is a huge part of it and half the battle. Going to a place that already has good stuff, your chances are great you’re going to get something that makes you happy. And a good $12 bottle of wine is hard to find, but a wine shop does all the hard work of finding that bottle and carrying it in their limited shelf space.
If you’re wanting to step up your wine game and go beyond a cheap weeknight whatever wine, a good price range to get into at a quality wine shop is $18-25. That will take you to tier two and open up a whole new world of really great wines. I rarely spend more than that and drink some awesome stuff.
How can we improve our palates?
- Don’t get stuck in a wine rut. Try new things and be adventurous.
- Stock up. A lot of wine stores will offer discounts on half or full cases.
- Keep record of what you drank. Take photos of wine labels and/or notes about the wine (I like the Delectable app) and share them with the folks where you buy your wine.
- Go to tastings! Anytime the wine shop offers tastings and opens up lots of bottles at once, take advantage.
What are three ways to say Cheers that will make us seem more cool?
- Salute (sah-lew-tay). Because there’s a sexy Italian living inside all of us.
- Santé if you wanna get French with it.
- Prost. It’s one of my favorites, learned during a wine night of epic proportions in Vienna.
Punch. Some of the best wine journalists in the country write for Punch and they have their finger on the pulse of the wine world.
Eric Asimov is the NYTimes wine critic. He knows what’s up.
Wine Folly for maps and regional stuff, food pairing guides, cool infographics. It’s great for beginners.
photo: Whitney Adams