How to Decode a Restaurant Wine List

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Restaurant wine lists seem to freak people out—you’re captive there, and someone else has arranged the selection. And oy, the markup!

Travelers need help deciphering wine lists, so today I enlist Liz Martinez, the sommelier and manager of the Purple Pig in Chicago, where the motto is “Cheese, Swine and Wine.” These are her tips:

Look for Countries With Deep Benches.

Some countries make wine in pretty much every region. “You can almost always find a good value in the Italian or Spanish section of a wine list,” she says. True: The southern stretches of all the Mediterranean countries tend to have good deals. As much as I love the West Coast of the U.S., it’s getting harder and harder to find value there, once you add in restaurant markups.

There’s No Shame in Talking Price.

Don’t shy away from giving the sommelier your price range. I do it all the time, whether it’s a pizza night or anniversary time. Martinez adds: “The sweet spot on a list for me is that $50-$60 range. Much of what you find in that category will usually be a good value. Between $70-$80, you start to see wines that I believe most people are treating themselves with. That extra $10-$20 can turn it up a notch.”

Is There Unusual Specialty Section? Pounce<.

Whenever you see a specialty area of a list that isn’t represented on most other lists (Hungary? Uruguay? Margaret River in Australia?), that tells you it’s a passion area for the sommelier team. And it’s fun to try something new. For Martinez, it’s Greece. “The white wines from Greece are known to have great minerality and acid, and are very approachable,” she says. “The red wines are aromatic, and have nice tannic structure, great with rich and savory dishes.”

Speaking of which, here are Martinez’s picks from Greece, from her own list:

“Want something juicy and vibrant with hints of stone fruit and preserved lemon? The 2013 Paranga by Kir-yianni, $50 on our list, is a wine from northern Greece that pairs well with antipasti and fresh summer salads.”

“The 2010 Domaine Karydas, 100 percent Xinomavro from Naoussa, another appellation in northern Greece, appeals to many because it’s a light aromatic red for summer. It’s $50 here. Broad tannin, plush fruit, a bit of grape spice and perfume for days.”

“If you’re feeling like doing something nice for yourself, pick Domaine Sigalas’ single vineyard Assyrtiko, the 2012 Kavalieros. Luxurious and silky, this Santorini wine has a gorgeous texture and beautiful vibrant Mediterranean fruit and spice. It’s $75 for an escape to the Mediterranean basin.”

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