As a lover of fine wines, there’s perhaps only one thing better than lobbying for commanding vintage wine that you know is going to cost a small fortune: finding a product just about like that in quality, for about one third the price. Such is the fine work of the subculture of sommeliers across America.
By understanding the famous appellations or regions in every country, you can began to negotiate through many fine dining wine lists according to price and year. However, a favorite technique to apply is finding that appealing friend next door – a wine that has most all of the body and strength of its grand cru neighbor, that few people ever hear of outside their country. Usually, but not always, trying this strategy at your next big fundraising charity, celebrity banquet, or client prospect dinner will treat you right – both in taste and on your final invoice.
For example, it pays to know about the neighbors to the legendary Corton Charlemagne plots in Burgundy, France. Are these chardonnays that command between two and three Ben Franklins really worth it? To a sommelier or serious collector, a Bonneau du Martray Corton Charlemagne is worth every penny, and you should buy all you can in this short supply.
However, literally around the hillside, just down the road, lies the lesser-known city of Pernand Vergelesses. With a region so small, yet so similar to Corton, how can you go wrong by trying something like a group of us tried at the Coral Gables Biltmore hotel? For a fraction of the Corton price, we’re enjoying fine, complex, long-finish chardonnay from Vallet Freres — less than one mile away from some of the largest Corton names in France.
It pays to know a little more about the micro-climate and geography of your wine, for sure.
But how can others with less training or firsthand knowledge of these regions apply this strategy? Quite simply, you must be willing to ask for a sommelier early in your dining experience. Too often, your first server is not any more capable than you in making this kind of selection. Occasionally, you will meet someone who is so excited to share something that he or she is bound to introduce you to it. If that doesn’t happen, no worries. Ask and wait for someone who is in charge of maintaining the wine list, usually a sommelier (but not always).
During one visit in Chicago, I deviated off my usual Cabernet path under the passion of a local wine merchant at his steakhouse. I found a grand cru blend that drinks like a Mouton-Rothschild, for one fifth of the price. Since that time, with more tasting experience, I have traveled to France just to visit this estate. Don’t give up the great wine next door. But first, you must ask about it.