Greetings and salutations!  Happy 2016 to each of you!  One of the perks from authoring The Wine Bargain Sleuth is that my dinner guest friends and family often defer to me when it is time to order wine to pair with dinner at a restaurant.  While I look forward to the challenge of a new and voluminous wine list now, I will confess that as recently as five years ago the thought of being responsible for my guests’ wine experience was somewhat daunting, even nerve-wracking.  After all, who wants to be the idiot who chooses a less-than-tasty wine for his companions’ dinner–especially at the princely tariff of two to three times retail that many fine restaurants routinely charge for a bottle of wine?  This month’s Chapter will provide some simple yet useful tips to assist wine sleuths in picking appropriate wines for your guests and your own enjoyment!   In no particular order, here are some tips for successfully navigating that otherwise-intimidating wine list presented to you.


Know Thy Companions and Thyself.  The most basic rule of a wine list is to know what you and your guests enjoy!  An imposing fifteen page section of a wine list dealing with rare French Bordeaux reds is irrelevant if you and your party prefer oakey California Chardonnays, for example.   Unless your buddies are definitely adventurous (and most people are not), it pays to stick with what they like.  In the rare instances in which you know that your guests are truly willing to try something new, use those highly developed wine sleuth abilities–in other words, go with a bottle that you know, or at bare minimum a style or varietal that you are personally familiar with!  In a pinch, be a gracious wine host by being sensitive to your guests’ tastes–take the opportunity to drink a varietal that you may not automatically ask for otherwise.   If I dine with 3 Chardonnay fans, then I typically suggest the Chard from a quality known producer in a good vintage that I have not yet tasted, taking the opportunity to broaden my own horizons a bit!


Pay Attention to the Main Course.  If the meal is a summer light supper with salads and similar fare, then a Chardonnay, a Sauvignon Blanc or even a Rose is likely a solid choice.  It is always a good idea to inquire as to what entree your companions plan to enjoy before you order; if the majority of the table is having fish or chicken rather than lamb or beef, for example, then I would take care not to order a full-bodied Big Red that would tend to overwhelm the more delicate tastes of the lighter dishes.   In that case, a full-bodied white Burgundy , a California Chardonnay or even a medium-bodied Pinot Noir is a better choice. On the other hand, if you have a table full of red meat carnivores, then let it rip on your favorite Big Red Bordeaux blend or Cali Cab!


Don’t Be Afraid to Ask the Sommelier.  Often folks with limited wine knowledge are embarrassed to ask the wine steward a question or to seek his/her advice on what bottle to order, perhaps fearing that the other guests will mistake the inquiry for uncertainty.   This is generally a mistake, as most somms are actually wine enthusiasts themselves that are anxious to ensure that you have a good experience with their wines rather than lecture to you, the great unwashed wine dummy.  If you aren’t sure about a specific vintage or a specific bottle’s quality, ask!  You might also miss a special or brand new wine offering not on the printed wine list by keeping your questions to yourself.   If you are uncertain as to the best way to start, a good approach is to tell the somm that you enjoy, for example, a Russian River Pinot Noir with your  grilled salmon, and you are wondering what can he/she recommend that would be similar?  Do not feel obligated to accept the recommendation, but you should definitely consider that knowledge from the wine steward of the establishment might be beneficial to your overall dining experience.  Finally, often a somm will point off the best value on the wine list, either a quality wine that has not sold as expected or a “pass along” savings the restaurant obtained from its distributor!


Industry Insider Tips:  Most diners avoid ordering the lowest price wine on the wine list, likely fearing either (a) that the wine will not taste good or (b) the  ridicule of being branded a cheapskate by his or her dining companions.   To combat both of those potential pitfalls, a wine sleuth should scour the wine list for the next-least expensive wines.   Many sommeliers enjoy placing a great wine (and accordingly a great wine value) in this slot, both to reward clever patrons and to offer value to their friends.   Another great idea (and this is again where your wine sleuth abilities come in) is to look for value in a different varietal instead of defaulting simply to the tried and true varietal.   For example, if my table partners prefer a Big Red to pair with steaks, I often take a look at an Argentinian Malbec rather than a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, as often a reserve-caliber Malbec is significantly less expensive than a run-of-the-mill Napa Cab and of much better quality. Similarly, a quality Beaujolais can be a great value over either a red Burgundy or an Oregon Pinot Noir, with similar or even better quality to pair with your dinner at a much lesser price point.


Wine By The Glass.   It is not uncommon for restaurants to offer wine by the glass; however, the issue is that often the higher quality wines that a wine sleuth might prefer are only offered on the menu by the bottle.   This can be a challenge when one dinner guest prefers reds when others are strongly in the whites camp.   I often inquire whether wines normally offered only by the bottle can be sold by the glass if at least two glasses will be ordered.  This is particularly a good opportunity if you are dining either by yourself or with only two rather than larger parties.   Some restaurants that focus on wine sales are remarkably flexible on this issue–but only if you ask your waiter or Somm.  For example, Max’s Wine Dive in Dallas has an extremely flexible policy if you will assure your waitron unit that he or she is assured of selling at least two glasses.   Don’t be shy about asking–otherwise the answer is always “no.”


I predict that you will be pleasantly surprised at the degree of success you have with even a hearty wine list if you will follow the simple steps discussed above!   And now, without further ado, here are this month’s Value Wines and Splurge Wine!


Value Wine No. 1:  Chatter Creek 2008 Blend 105.

Are you wine sleuths looking for an aged, elegant Bordeaux blend Big Red to get you through the winter chill that doesn’t set you back the equivalent of a January gas bill?  Can I get an “Amen?”  We have just the wine for this month’s Value Wine No. 1, the Chatter Creek 2008 Blend 105 from Columbia Valley, Washington.  Yes, that’s right, this Northwest Big Red is actually a 2008 vintage, meaning that it is perfectly aged at the vineyard and refined for your immediate enjoyment.   Reminiscent of a Right Bank Bordeaux, the Chatter Creek 2008 Blend 105 is a Merlot based blend, with helpful but lesser dollups of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc to complete the classic five Bordeaux blend varietals. The Blend 105 has a nose of blueberries and violets, with a front palate of cassis and blueberries, finishing with an earthy and elegant mouthfeel containing a hint of vanilla bean and almond.   The finish lingers for a minute or so, completing the delightful experience.   Conveniently finished with a screwcap, the Chatter Creek 2008 Blend 105 is a terrific picnic wines to complement your earthy and rich cheeses, and it is also a terrific candidate to pair with a grilled filet of beef or prime rib.   The past several vintages of the Blend 105 have been scored very favorably with various wine critics. The 2008 vintage received a very respectable 87 rating from Wine Spectator, which commented:  “This vibrant, deftly balanced style offers smoky, cola-accented black cherry flavors on a lithe structure, hinting at dusty earth notes as the finish lingers.”  Available on the Chatter Creek website ( for $20, a clever sleuth can source this lovely Big Red for a few bucks less.   Thanks to our friends at Ronin Wines in Dallas, I had the opportunity to meet founder and winemaker Gordon Rawson, who immediately conveyed his passion for his Chatter Creek wines and the Washington terrior from which its grapes are sourced.  One sip of the Chatter Creek 2008 Blend 105 All in all, we recommend that you run, don’t walk, to acquire the 2008 Blend 105 to start your cellar on a roll to celebrate the new year!


Value Wine No. 2:  Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2013.

If you enjoy Chardonnay from Napa or Sonoma, then you know how challenging it can be to find a complex yet affordable one.  Perhaps this month’s Value Wine No. 2, the Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2013, might be your solution. Neither overly oaked nor too creamy, the Chalk Hill 2013 manages a rare balance for a Chard in its price range. Eleven months in new and used French Oak provide a complex vanilla and spice quality to offset its hints of blood orange and green apple. A lovely, lengthy finish provides both richness and acidity that combine to treat its drinker’s taste buds. The Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2013 retains for $22, but is available on the internet and in big box retailers for perhaps $5 less, and there is no question that this Chard is a terrific value wine for our domestic white wine fans.  Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate was certainly impressed with the Rodney Strong Chard offering, awarding the wine a solid 90 and opining as follows:  “Medium bodied with a hint of wet rock minerality, this pure beauty’s striking style appears to traverse both Chablis and a leaner white Burgundy.”  This Sonoma Valley Chard will pear beautifully with a creamy brie appetizer or a cedar plank salmon entree with equal aplomb.   Chard fans, what are you waiting for?


Value Wine No. 3:  Cameron Hughes  Lot 403 2012 Russian River Pinot Noir.

Those of you who follow The Wine Bargain Sleuth regularly are undoubtedly familiar with Cameron Hughes’ terrific value wines.   In fact, it is fair to say that we could easily feature a Cameron Hughes wine as a recommended Value Wine each month.  Savvy wine sleuths understand the value that all Cameron Hughes wines bring in terms of bang for your hard earned buck, and the Lot 403 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot is no exception.  Retailing for $18 in stores or on the website (, this is a classic, bold Pinot Noir from Russian River.  Lot 403 has classic dark cherry and cola notes, with a bit of raspberry for a little zing, followed by an earthy, polished finish that will stand up to +*turkey, whether roasted or deep fried, as well as ham or salmon.  This is no watery, wimpy Pinot for your table. As with virtually every Cameron Hughes wine I have sampled, the Lot 403 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir far outdrinks its price point of $16.  Your guests will keep asking for just one more glass.   Available in wide distribution or on the Cameron Hughes website.


Worth a Splurge Wine:  Soujourn Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013.

Your humble Wine Bargain Sleuth has been on a bit of a Pinot Noir kick lately.    This remarkable varietal can be remarkably expressive and even breathtaking when well executed.   Very few varietals reflect the terrior of their source more than the elegant Pinot grape.  Finding a quality Pinot is always exciting, but finding a great one for under $40 is worth spreading the great word.  Which brings us to the Soujourn Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013, which is just such a wine.   Complex, silky and multilayered, the Soujourn Sonoma Coast is ruby in color with a medium body.   It has hints of baking spice, cherry cola and a hint of raspberry, with a lingering finish with just a hint of earthiness.    In short, it is an outstanding expression of the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir grape.  Retailing for a very reasonable $39, it can be had for a few bucks less with careful sleuthing.   And what about the critics?  Wine Enthusiast awarded the Soujourn Sonoma Coast 2013 a stellar 95 rating, and the Pinot-centric Pinot Report followed suit with an even more impressive 96.   I pulled the trigger on several bottles and now I wish I had gotten a case or two.   While $39 is not an inexpensive wine, a Pinot Noir of this caliber is indeed a great value!


Wine Thought of the Day:   Still More Great Wine Quotes.


I have lived temperately….I double the doctor’s recommendation of a glass and a half wine each day and even treble it with a friend.
~ Thomas Jefferson

Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.
~ Louis Pasteur

A waltz and a glass of wine invite an encore.
~ Johann Strauss



Until next month– Cheers!

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