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Let the sommelier play cupid

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Do you tense up when saddled with the wine list at a fancy establishment - all 24 single-spaced pages of it? Is German label nomenclature Greek to you?

I suspect there are more cases of wine-list fever on Valentine's Day than on any other. It's the busiest date on the restaurant calendar. And if there's a time when people order whole bottles rather than individual glasses, this is it. Sharing is romantic.

My advice for surviving the wine-list challenge this Saturday? Call over the sommelier.

If you happen to be a man with emasculation issues, trust me, real experts will often rely on the sommelier. Even professional tasters who sample thousands of wines a year will rarely have tasted more than, say, 5 per cent of any good restaurant's list.

The sommelier is, of course, the fancy restaurant's resident wine expert.

Forget your New Yorker cartoon preconceptions of a tuxedo-clad Arthur Fiedler look-alike wearing a shiny silver chain and slurping cup - a tastevin - around his neck. These days the sommelier is likely to be better trained, 32, and female. She's more likely to refer to a Volnay as awesome than malolactic.

Herewith, some tips for taking advantage of the wine pro on Valentine's Day.

Tip No. 1: Relax. Contrary to old-school stereotypes, sommeliers today are often among the least obnoxious or pompous people in a fancy restaurant (certainly less so than the "future Food Network star" in the kitchen).

"Half of us here are all ex-competitive snowboarders," says Samantha Rahn, wine director and one of four sommeliers and three trainees at Araxi Restaurant + Bar in Whistler, B.C.

Ms. Rahn, 32, says most evenings she will elicit reactions of surprise after making her way to a table that's asked for help. "They always look at me, 'Are you the sommelier?' "

Boarder-girl background notwithstanding, Ms. Rahn, like most sommeliers today, is trained to read your body language, which brings us to ...

Tip No. 2: Let your fingers do the talking when it comes to price. "Make eye contact with the sommelier and point to the wine name and then the price," Ms. Rahn says. "Then we have some place to take you."

Most sommeliers are hip to such semiotics.

While pointing, you may want to mutter something innocuous-sounding, such as, "I was thinking about something like this. Have you tasted it lately? Is it drinking well?" That last line is a reference to the maturity of the vintage. Very savvy on your part. Your date will be completely oblivious to your parsimony if you perform it all confidently. Practise in the mirror if you have to.

Remember, a sommelier is less likely to nudge you up to a more expensive selection than a waiter is. Although it's good form to leave a separate tip for the sommelier, most don't expect one (oops, did I say that?), so they're not usually thinking about torquing the final bill.

Price can be a sensitive issue on V-Day. As the person paying for the wine, you're vulnerable because there's pressure to look like a big shot.

Tip No. 3: Acting like a cheapskate is perfectly fine in 2009. And not just because of the recession. Believe it or not, sommeliers are far less likely than they used to be to sniff derisively when you ask about the most affordable wine on the list.

The rule of thumb in the past for the savvy frugal diner was to zero in on the second-cheapest bottle. Usually the quality was far superior to the rock-bottom selections. And it prevented you from looking like a complete loser.

But now the entry-level selection is usually a point of pride with sommeliers. No self-respecting wine pro today will pad his or her list with mass-market swill just because it's cheap.

"You don't necessarily have to spend a lot of money to get quality wine these days," says Rob Smith, sommelier and cellar manager at River Café on Calgary's Prince's Island Park, one of the city's hot romantic dining establishments. "I would say that the least expensive wine will be a good value. A wine of poor quality is not going to be making it on my list."

Tip No. 4: Don't be afraid to ask explicitly about other hidden gems. The restaurant's wine expert knows where the value lies and is usually keen to point it out.

"There's always something near the bottom that is the go-to wine for the sommelier, for his friends when they come in and they don't have a lot of money," says Stephen Beckta, owner of two Ottawa fine-dining establishments, Beckta Dining & Wine and the newly opened Play Food & Wine.

That go-to wine right now for Mr. Beckta, who has worked in New York for famed restaurateur Danny Meyer and for chef Daniel Boulud: Château Prieuré Borde Corbières 2005, a full-bodied and versatile grenache-based red from southern France, at $35. "It's fantastic," he says. "We got it on sale. It's an extraordinary wine. And I'd much rather drink that than most of the $50 bottles on our list."

Tip No. 5: Appeal to their soft spots. "Look where there's a bunch of off-the-beaten-path wines," Mr. Beckta advises. "If one wine list has five Vouvrays, well, obviously the sommelier is a huge Vouvray fan and is going to have some great values in that region. ... Oftentimes they'll subsidize those passions with more generic cabernet sauvignons from Napa Valley, for instance. I would apply a slightly bigger markup to a Caymus cabernet [a California trophy red] that I have to have on the list in order to subsidize the tiny Vouvray producer whose wines are true to my soul."

Tip No. 6: Be like Steven Spielberg - be wary of seemingly overpriced wines, even when you're out on Valentine's Day. Mr. Beckta's favourite Feb. 14 recollection dates to 1999. The movie director and producer was dining with his wife at Café Boulud in Manhattan and was curious about two inconsistently priced vintages of Château Petrus, the famed merlot from Bordeaux.

"He says, 'You have a 1990 at $2,500 [U.S.] and a 1994 at $900. Is there really any difference? Is the 1990 worth three times as much?' " Mr. Beckta recalls. He responded that the 1990 had garnered higher scores from critics but that the 1994 was a better value. "They ordered the less expensive wine and had a great time."

A proud Canadian native, Mr. Beckta later sent over two glasses of Cave Spring Indian Summer Riesling, a Niagara dessert wine that cost the restaurant $10 a half bottle. It turned out to be the hit of the dinner. "They both freaked out over the $10 Indian Summer Riesling, more than over the Petrus. And that's the perfect Valentine's. It's not about the money."

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