For many of us overgrown teenagers, confronting a stacked wine list at a fine-dining restaurant is about as terrifying as looking down to discover you forgot your pants. That’s why we enlisted the great James Beard award-winning sommelier and accomplished wine myth-buster Belinda Chang to help us clear up what is and isn’t true when we’re talking vino. Belinda heads up the wine program at Chicago’s phenomenally classy Maple & Ash, and the woman undoubtedly knows her stuff (if you haven’t checked out her bottled water ranking, please do so now).
You might want to print out this list and tuck it in your wallet for reference, pal. I see a lot of white tablecloths in your future (or at least a few red wine stains).
Myth: You should drink Champagne in flute glasses
When I worked for Moët Hennessy, we had a Champagne called "Smash the Flute.” The point was to just throw them out the window. Flutes are elegant and they feel celebratory, but you can't swirl in them. When you drink Champagne with famous French winemakers, it's always served in a ginormous Riedel glass so you can actually smell and taste the wine. At the restaurant, we serve Champagne in white wine glasses all the time, just to showcase it.
I always like to quote the Chef de Cave from Dom Pérignon who said, "You buy a bottle of malbec for $5 and you pour it into this big, beautiful glass and I made you a bottle of chardonnay and pinot noir and I aged it for ten to twenty years and you're going to stuff it into this flute where you can't smell it, you can't really see it, you can't aerate it -- why are you doing that to my wine?" It's like, why you doing that to my Bentley? You're not letting it out of the showroom.
Myth: The cheaper the bottle, the better the value
In 99.99% of restaurants, the most marked-up wines are at the bottom end of the list and the least marked-up wines at the top end. So, if you're looking for a bargain, it’s usually the most expensive bottle.
We like to say that we put together a wine list that's great for treasure hunters -- you know, those people who collect a lot of wine, they know a lot, and they're going through a list to try to find where the deal is that no one else will find. When we have a super crazy expensive wine that we got at auction or something like that, sometimes we only tack on $50. We want somebody to drink it! We bought it because we think it's delicious and it works with our cuisine. I don't want that bottle to sit in our cellar until I'm dead and gone.
Myth: White wine with fish, red wine with meat
I work in a steakhouse, so everyone automatically asks what page the California cabernets are on. I think that's a horrible myth: You're just limiting yourself to the pinkie of the wine world when you're sticking with a Napa cab. At a place like this where we have a huge wood fire, everything's got char and smoke and all those grilled flavors, and those are delicious with big chardonnays.
A good rule of thumb is, "What grows together, goes together," so whenever I'm thinking about wine pairings, I'll think about what they're eating in that region. One of the places where they eat a lot of steak, which might be surprising, is Bordeaux in France. Of course, they have cabernet and merlot-based reds, but they also have these richly textured, smoky whites made from sémillon and sauvignon blanc and that's exactly what you want with a bite of steak.
Pairings can also depend on the chef. I worked with this great chef in New York, Gabriel Kreuther, and his food was so balanced that you could always find a great rosé, white, or red to go with the dish. It was colorblind cooking, in a way -- the color didn’t matter, you just had to match the texture.
And, lastly, it can be all about the sauce, not the protein. If you get a white wine sauce, even if it's a beef dish, then it's a white wine situation. Or if you do a white fish with an oxtail red wine ragu, then you're totally in red wine territory.
Myth: Sommeliers are just after your wallet
There’s an idea that if you ask for the sommelier, you're going to end up spending more than you would have if you had selected the wine on your own, and that’s just not true. Here, for instance, we have 650 selections. They start at $28 and they go up to $10,000, and we would never recommend a $10,000 wine unless the person was specifically telling us that's what they wanted. We actually train our wine team to down-sell because I think it's a lot more fun when someone thought they wanted to spend $150 and then is shocked to see how much happier they are with a $50 bottle. We do that all the time -- we’re trained to love that challenge.
Myth: A grape is a grape, no matter where it's from
There’s the myth that riesling is always sweet, or pinot noir is always light. In reality, there are people that make light, pretty styles of pinot noir that are all juicy tutti-frutti. And there are people that make styles of pinot noir that are meaty and rich and full bodied. I hate when someone comes to me and says, "I hate fill-in-the-blank because they're all a certain way." I would say to them, "Oh my gosh, have you not had a pinot noir from Vosne Romanee in Burgundy or have you not had a big, rich pinot noir from the Central Coast of California?" These days, there is always someone somewhere in the world making a wine that's going to make you super happy, which I think is really fun.
Myth: Always drink white wine cold and red wine warm
Truthfully, most restaurants serve white wines a little too cold and red wines a little too warm. If we're drinking a light, bright red wine, and it's summer in Chicago, and it's a little humid, I want all my red wines with a little bit of chill. In general, reds with really bright acidity, reds made from thinner-skinned grapes like pinot noir and dolcetto that have more tart cherry than cherry jam notes -- all those taste better when they’re cool. And then you get the joy of watching it unfold and change in the glass as it comes to temperature -- I mean, if you don't chug it.
With whites, they need way less chill than you might think. Unless you have it at the right temperature, you can’t smell it and you don't really pick up on the texture. If you have a gorgeous bottle of white bordeaux or white burgundy or aged Australian chardonnay and you can't taste it or it feels like you're drinking a glass of water, it's because it's too cold. Don't ever feel weird about asking your server to decant your bottle of white. The average refrigerator is, what, 30, 40 degrees? If you let the wine come up to 50 or 60 degrees, you're going to get a wholly different experience. You know when you smell a wine and you can only pick out one scent? Give it a second to warm up and you'll be able to smell a million things -- it's like the entire rainbow is possible, not just one color.
Myth: Corks are better than screw-tops
This comes down to aging -- if it's a nice bottle that you're buying because your son was born and you want to keep it for years and years, I don't think a screw-top is going to be the best option. You'll want to get something old-school and then watch it evolve like it's evolved for hundreds of years with a normal, porous cork. But normally, we're going to the grocery store or the corner store or our favorite boutique wine store and buying a bottle and drinking it that night or within the next couple days, so who cares what the fuck kind of closure device you're using. It's all good.
Myth: Glass shapes are only for aesthetics
This is my favorite subject. Having worked in restaurants that serve anywhere from 80 people to 1000 people a night, I give a lot of thought to glassware and how much should be spent on it. Even entertaining at home, I’m like, “Does it matter if I have the expensive glassware? Do I need to have lots of different shapes?” But I’ve learned in the business that the shape does matter -- it changes how you perceive and taste the wine. And yes, a better glass can make a wine taste better, that's for sure.
In general, there are a couple standard shapes that work with everything. There's a glass called an AP glass, or an all purpose glass. It looks kind of like a white wine glass and there are studies that show that this shape makes just about everything taste really good. It's got a little bit of a curve and it goes convex to concave, so as we twirl it, it traps all the esters and molecules that affect the aroma and keeps them from blowing off. If you only get one shape for your home bar, this is great style.
Myth: And stemless wine glasses are the pinnacle of cool
I hate stemless. I hate it for so many reasons. For one, in a restaurant, we paid someone to polish it and now we're going to get fingerprints all over it -- it drives me nuts. But also, a wine glass was built a certain way on purpose -- the stem keeps your hands away from the wine and the wine at temperature. I really love a long stem and a proper bowl. But stemless? Never.
Myth: When it comes to American wine, it's Napa or bust
There's wine being made in all 50 states in the US, so it's really fun to figure out who's doing something interesting nearby. A lot of them are buying grapes from California and bringing them home, but the grape vine is hearty and there's a million places where you can grow them. New York state, obviously, and the Ithaca-Finger Lakes region -- they're making world class Rieslings that rival what's going on in Germany. Also, Virginia -- there's a winery there named Horton doing viognier, which is a wine I love. There's also a lot going on in Michigan. We're just a really young wine-making culture compared to the original gangsters -- everybody's still finding their way, and California just happened to be first. It's going to be fun to see who comes next.
Myth: All sweet wines suck
People will shy away from ordering sweet wines because they think they'll all taste like white zinfandel. But there are absolutely great wines that are on the sweeter side. Look, we were all battered by white zinfandel. But, arguably the most collectable wine in the entire world is Château d'Yquem, which is a sauternes, a sweet wine from the north of France. It's made from grapes that are affected by botrytis, also known as noble rot, which makes it really rare but also very sweet. That just goes to show that some sweet wines are amongst the most venerable in existence. And hey, I got no hate for somebody that loves to chug a glass of Moscato d'Asti -- if that's the wine you love, I’m all for it.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.