Let It Pour

How to choose your house wine

February 16, 2013 


Amber Nimocks.


Of the questions I grapple with on a regular basis, among the most vexing is “What wine should I get?”

It ranks just somewhere below “What on earth am I going to make for dinner tonight?” and “Can it really be time to pack my child’s lunch again so soon? I just did it yesterday.”

Unless it’s a special occasion or I know exactly what food it will accompany (see question No. 1), or I am in such a white-blind hurry that I have only enough time to grab the bottle of chilled pinot grigio shelved nearest the door, I too often wind up standing for too long in the aisles of a grocery store or bottle shop wearing a slightly bewildered look. It’s not that I don’t know what wine I like. It’s that I like so many.

Having ready answers for perpetual questions such as these is the hallmark of a well-organized life. The key is to plan ahead so you don’t have to make crucial decisions when your brain is already frazzled from a long day of impersonating a grownup. I so admire people who find a wine they like well enough to buy it case after case and keep it on hand for all occasions, making it their “house wine.” People like this also tend to have adventurous palates. They somehow manage to achieve a balance between the routine and the inspired. I’ve been meaning to become one of these people – I believe they’re called adults – for a while.

But how do you go about picking your own house wine?

Because a reliable house wine is also the hallmark of good restaurant management, I consulted a professional. The first thing I learned is that most independent or small-company restaurants eschew the term house wine. This has been the case for a while. As the American wine IQ has increased with wider consumption, fewer wine drinkers want to settle for the cheapest glass of Chardonnay on the list. These days, restaurants offer “by-the-glass” options, identified by maker, region and vintage, not just grape varietal.

Josh Michael is the general manager at Glenwood South’s 518 West, where the wine list has a handful of standing by-the-glass options and a page full of changing by-the-glass specials. He says the company, Chapel Hill Restaurant Group, which has several Triangle outposts, likes to let managers make choices just for their clientele, rather than have all restaurants stock the shelves with bestsellers. Michael likes to provide wines that aren’t available in retail stores, which gives wine drinkers a chance to sample outside of their comfort zone.

While it may seem counterintuitive, that’s a good tip: Pick a house wine to surprise as well as soothe your guests. I have friends who fell in love with a New Zealand sauvignon blanc they had elsewhere and couldn’t find in the Triangle. They had a wine shop owner track down the vineyard and distributor and they ordered a case – or several. For six months, it was their house wine, and I knew that I’d be offered a glass whenever I was there. Knowing that I could get it only in their kitchen made it all the better.

Buying wine by the case can feel a little decadent, until you remember that you’re actually saving money. Almost every vendor offers case discounts, and if you find a favorite on sale, you’re in bonus territory.

Adulthood holds so many difficult questions – “How much life insurance should I buy?” “Why does the escrow amount on my mortgage statement keep changing?” “What on earth am I going to make for dinner, again, tonight?”

It’s best to take them one at a time, and you might as well start with picking a wine.

Amber Nimocks is the former food editor at The News & Observer. She can be reached at amberwrites.com.

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