SAN ANTONIO — We always like to delve into the wine list at restaurants we review.
It’s a pleasure, but we are also firm believers that wine and food go with each other because nature planned it that way.
Sure, some wine and food matches can be truly awful. As I write this, a decidedly unpleasant memory arises that involved a glass of cabernet sauvignon served with a smoked salmon salad. It lived up to the “awful” description exactly.
If you haven’t honed the art of wine-food pairing, however, don’t worry overly much about it. If you love the wine you’ve ordered and the food is well prepared, chances are you’ll enjoy the meal.
Lately, we’ve been asked questions having to do with ordering wine at restaurants. Here are some thoughts about one we were asked recently.
Why does a wine served at a restaurant taste better than the same wine you serve at home?
While this is probably not always true, I can think of a couple of simple reasons it might happen enough that someone would ask us about it.
First, restaurants that care about wine store and serve them professionally.
Not all of us, including myself, are able to do that at home.
We’ll start with storage. Do you have a wine cellar or wine cave with temperature and humidity controls? Or, is your wine rack in a cool, dim or dark place (especially with no fluorescent lighting).
Is it an untrafficked area so the wine isn’t sloshed around in its bottle every time someone walks past the rack?
Restaurants that are serious about their wines will store them in one of the ways described above. If they’ve purchased wines that have been handled competently along the way, from the winemaker to your wine waiter, you should get that wine just as it was meant to be tasted.
Does this always happen? No. Even in the best of circumstances there might be a chemical mishap, from a flawed cork to unwelcome bacteria that ruins the flavor of the wine.
Another simple answer is vintage. Even in mass-marketed wines that aim for consistency every year, we can sometimes notice a difference from one year to the next. Check to be sure the wine you have at home was produced in the same year as the one you loved at the restaurant.
Do you keep your wine glasses scrupulously washed and polished?
True, not all restaurants do this. But, when wines are being tasted at a competition, cloudy glassware or any hint of a soapy taste will result in a loud hue and cry from the judging rooms. Soap in wine, just like in food, will really throw off the taste.
Are you serving the wine at the proper temperature?
Most restaurants (not all, and not all the time) pay attention to the fact that a red wine needs to be cooled to cellar temperature, not served at the temperature of the average home living room in July.
Put it in the fridge 15 minutes before you serve it. For white wines, chill them in the refrigerator but take them out 15 minutes before you serve them.
This might not be the perfect rule of thumb, but it works well enough and is easy to remember.
I’ll take this opportunity to complain about something I see too often.
When I walk into a restaurant and pass the bar, my heart sinks when I see a slew of wines to be served by the glass opened, partially used and stoppered, sitting on the shelf behind the bar.
Not all of these wines will be pleasant to drink when served. In places like San Antonio that are hot in the summer and warm in the winter, most of these wines, even reds, would be better kept in a cool (not necessarily frigid) place.
This has happened to me enough that I now ask the wine server if the red wine by the glass has been stored in a cooler or not. If not, I ask them to cool it down for a few minutes. (We assume that whites, already opened or not, will be kept chilled.)
Finally, we get to what is a subjective reason that wine served at a restaurant might taste better than the same wine served at home. That might be simply because we’re out, relaxed, not working to put a meal on the table or distracted by television.
If the wine is being shared by friends, so much the better. Even if it’s just a relative perception that the wine is better, that’s always something to count as pleasure added.