Cellar Wisdom

An Expert’s Shortcut for Conquering a Restaurant Wine List

Pick an impressive wine like a pro by memorizing just a few key names.


A dinner companion recently uttered the four words few diners ever want to hear: “You pick the wine.”

It took place during a dinner at Alfred Portale’s landmark restaurant Gotham Bar and Grill, in New York. The server brought us a sizable leather-bound wine list, along with the oversize food menus. My friend pushed the list across the table to me with a satisfied smile, knowing that this night he would be off the (wine-deciding) hook.

As you can imagine, this scenario happens to me fairly often given my occupation. That doesn’t make it easy, however. The pressure feels highest when friends, relatives, and bosses expect me to find a hidden gem every time, regardless of what they feel like drinking.

Fortunately, the sight of a wine list with entries in the hundreds no longer causes me to break out in a cold sweat.

I’ve made peace with the fact that I will probably never be familiar with (or even recognize) every wine on a list like Gotham’s. There is nothing shameful about that. Few people on earth are that knowledgeable. While I will continue to strive to learn more about wine, knowing my limits is a truly freeing notion. It allows me to be more confident about what I do and don’t know.

But that doesn’t mean I am willing to settle for just any old bottle of vino. Nor are my dining companions. (Trust me.)

While there are a number of strategies to help you navigate a wine list without quitting your job and becoming a sommelier, my favorite shortcut to finding a delicious bottle without much stress is to familiarize myself with a handful of boutique importers. I know that doesn’t sound as promising as a cheat sheet for, say, up-and-coming wine producers, but stay with me.

You won’t find the names of these importers on the front label of a bottle; they reside on the back. Unfortunately, however, no wine menu I’ve encountered lists importers. So how does this knowledge make your life easier?

These niche importers have reputations—with restaurateurs, critics, collectors, store owners, and journalists—for scouring the United States and abroad for small producers that make wine with the most traditional of techniques and methods. To boot, these wines are often quite reasonably priced and delicious to drink.

At Gotham, I took a cursory look at the list, made up of several dozen thick, cream-colored pages. The only question I asked my friend was whether he wanted red, white, or sparkling. “Red,” he blurted out immediately. That, combined with the knowledge that he planned to order the restaurant’s famed 28-day dry-aged steak, was all the info I needed.

The server came to our table and, after a brief discussion, sent over Heidi Turzyn, the restaurant’s wine director. This is where one’s knees often buckle. (Stay strong!) I asked Turzyn if she had a red wine from the Louis/Dressner Selections portfolio, explaining that I was a big fan of their wines. (Many times a sommelier will confess to being a Louis/Dressner fan, too, and the exchange becomes more like a chat between old friends and less like a negotiation with a used car salesman.)

It was an easy request. She quickly recommended the 2010 vintage of Occhipinti Il Frappato, a Sicilian wine. I asked for a brief description of the bottling, which Turzyn was happy to provide. It sounded perfect and out it came: medium bodied, with a pleasant spicy, earthy note. Incredibly drinkable, it paired nicely with my miso-marinated black cod and my companion’s steak.

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The whole process took just a few minutes. Not only was my friend impressed by the delicious selection, but he also enjoyed our conversation with Turzyn. He even worked up the nerve to ask about the row of impressive magnums the restaurant proudly displays over the bar.

While it helps to deal with a friendly and knowledgeable sommelier like Turzyn, I’ve used this technique in dozens of restaurants with great success. Even if the establishment doesn’t stock wines from any of the importers you mention, it at least gives the server an idea of what kinds of wines you like to drink.

Here are a few of my favorite boutique importers to get you started:

Louis/Dressner Selections

When Joe Dressner and his wife, Denyse Louis, started their company in 1988, the focus was on the most authentically produced French wines they could find. The firm has since expanded to representing wines from Italy, Germany, Portugal, Croatia, Slovenia, and Chile. Dressner passed away several years ago, but the company continues to uphold his high standard and commitment to reasonable pricing. Its signature Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie, from Domaine de la Pépière, is quaffable and, at around $14, a steal.

Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant

Kermit Lynch is the godfather of boutique importers. He started out running a store in Berkeley, California, in 1972, before making pilgrimages to Europe to find unique wines from artisanal producers that he couldn’t get in the U.S. His portfolio consists of wines from Italy and France. You can read about his adventures in his acclaimed book, Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France.

Skurnik Wines

If you’re looking for vino from the Old World (France, Italy, Spain) or the New World (America, South Africa, New Zealand), Skurnik has you covered. The company offers a deep selection of wine from around the globe. But no matter where they come from, the bottles are always shipped in refrigerated containers and stored in warehouses kept at 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Neal Rosenthal

You might say Neal Rosenthal is obsessed with the idea of terroir. He has been hunting down fine wines that reflect where and how they are made since 1977. His company has evolved and it now represents a hundred vineyards around France, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland.