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Lessons of a $63,000 bar tab
Don't mistake cost for quality when choosing wine -- here's how to strike the right balance.
June 2, 2004: 12:59 PM EDT
By Gordon T. Anderson, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - A few years ago in London, six City bankers, celebrating their good fortune to be City bankers, dined at the restaurant Petrus, a lavish place with a wine list to make a French king drool.

The food -- frog's legs, truffles and such -- was free, because the group spent so much on drinks. The night's bar bill ran to 44,007, about $63,000 back then.

wine ideas for a big night out

That bought three bottles of Chateau Petrus, a 1984 Montrachet, and a vintage 1900 Chateau d'Yquem, plus two beers and a pack of cigarettes. That century-old Sauterne (price: 9,200) finished the meal, but the just desserts came later.

After five of the six tried to sneak the tab onto their expense reports at Barclays, they were fired and mocked the world over.

Right and wrong

When buying wine, too many people mistake cost for quality. The bankers, apparently, just picked the priciest bottles they could find, then compounded their boorishness by getting drunk on the stuff.

But if theirs is an example of how to behave badly, what should one do when faced with a fat wine list in a fancy setting? To find out, I turned to two experts named Karen.

Karen King is the wine director at Gramercy Tavern in New York. Routinely ranked among the city's most popular eateries by the Zagat Survey, Gramercy epitomizes down-to-earth sophistication. Its wine list is dynamic and creative, provocatively mixing famous names with lesser-known but terrific labels.

"Ordering well is often a matter of language," says King. "It's important to be as clear as possible in describing what you're looking for."

Start by relaxing, advises Karen MacNeil, chairman of the wine program at the Culinary Institute of America's Napa Valley campus. The author of "The Wine Bible" (Workman, 2001), MacNeil is also the host of the upcoming PBS series, "Wine, Food & Friends."

"Most people sit down and think they need to know immediately what to do about the wine," she says. "I like to buy myself time by ordering champagne first. It's a classic, elegant way to begin, and gives you time to tackle the wine list for real."

Gramercy Tavern offers a couple of sparkling wines by the glass, including a perennial King favorite, the Blanc de Blancs from Schramsberg in California.

Both experts say they themselves routinely ask for help.

menu these wines would complement

"The sommelier can tell you what's pouring well, or can tip you off to some unusual wines you might not otherwise know about," says King. "You should never be shy about asking questions."

"A wine steward's job is to know about their list," adds MacNeil. "It makes no sense not to take advantage of that expertise."

A big night out should also blend ritual with romance. On a two-bottle evening, make the first a well-known classic. Then, let the sommelier guide you to the other. Ask for "something very adventurous, something you'd never know about," MacNeil suggests.

"With all due respect to the big brands, when you order a famous wine, a bit of the wine director's heart sinks," she notes. "It's much more fun if you ask to be turned on to something wild."

Some picks to match a menu

Things can get trickier if you're eating a big meal like the one the bankers had. (Click here to see a sample menu.)

"The irony is that they made a huge mistake from the standpoint of food pairings," MacNeil argues. "When you order a great, extraordinarily nuanced wine like a Petrus, your meal should be something basic like a grilled steak. If the food has all these bells and whistles, you'd do just as well with a $40 Cabernet."

I asked Karen King to come up with some affordable alternatives to the bottles the bankers drank, based on the menu they ate from. For fun, I also asked her to pick a few as if "money were no object."

As I'd hoped, the list (see gallery) contains some interesting picks.

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"The Angeli La Lune is definitely an adventure. It's a head-turning wine," she says, referring to the Loire Valley white she chose to start off the meal.

A Spanish dessert wine on her list, the Olivares, also merits her description as "one of those great surprises."

These and King's other recommendations illustrate that where wine selection is concerned, an open mind matters far more than an open wallet.

"Wine is like music," as MacNeil puts it. "If you're not listening, it doesn't matter what's playing on the stereo."

The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to:  Top of page

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