Ordering off the wine list isn't always as easy as ordering off the menu. But sommeliers stock their cellars with wines suited to a restaurant's cuisine and can recommend bottlings to match your tastes and budget.
At Le Foret, general manager/partner Danny Milan and restaurant captain Maurico Burns split wine-buying duties and offer their own menu-pairing insights. Milan is a former maitre d' and general manager at both Brennan's and Restaurant August. Burns served as a captain at the Grill Room at the Windsor Court, working with renowned chefs Kevin Graham and Rene Bajeux.
Before opening Le Foret in October 2009, the two spent two months assembling their list of 750 labels. The choices stretch from a $34 Malbec Reserva to first growth French Bordeaux in prized vintages, with many wines between $50 and $80. In addition, there are some cult wines like the 1994 Harlan Estate ($1,600), and the restaurant's top-priced wine is Screaming Eagle ($2,600). There are 25 wines available by the glass.
"We have something for everyone — from every major region on the globe," Milan says. "Our guests like to see the varied wine growing areas represented so they can have more choices. ... Often, people are looking for something different: Hot areas are Southern Hemisphere choices from faraway places like Argentina or Australia."
The most popular requests for more familiar bottlings include big Cabernets, Bordeaux blends and California Meritage blends, he says.
Pinot Noir is the varietal guests seek most often, particularly Pinots from California's Russian River and Oregon's Willamette Valley, Burns says.
"In a given week, we will sell more Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, mostly from California, than anything else," Milan says.
"Some guests will still opt for generally pricier French Burgundys as well as Bordeaux," Burns adds.
Milan and Burns constantly evaluate and change their wine list. Incorporating feedback from guests and waitstaff, they try new wines, and if those selections go over well with diners and the vintage is in good supply, they may be added to the list.
One of the standouts Milan often recommends is Crocker and Starr "Stone Place," a 2005 Cabernet blend from Napa. "Guests love that wine with the duck, filet mignon or veal chop," he says. A more affordable alternative is the 2004 Chateau Pomerol, which is not printed on the current list.
With the rabbit, quail and venison, Milan recommends the 2002 Vega Sicilia "Valbuena" Cosecha from Spain, or the more moderately priced 2007 Petalos Bierzo Descendientes de J. Palacios.
Burns chooses another Palacios wine, 2007 Alvaro Palacios Priorat "Finca Dofi," to pair with the roasted rack of free range veal with chevre gnudi, California morel mushrooms, prosciutto, sage and Marsala. Another option is the 2006 Zaca Mesa "Z Cuvee" Syrah from California's Santa Ynez Valley.
With the roast saddle of lamb saltimbocca with fava beans, Burns pairs a Petite Syrah such as the 2007 Girard Napa or the 2005 Trapet Gevrey-Chambertin from Burgundy.
For complex seafood dishes combining varying textures and flavors such as the caramelized snapper fillet with lobster, boiled potatoes, wilted spinach, sultanas and star anise, Burns chooses a Spanish Albarino such as the 2008 Morgadio from Rias Baixas.
Burns likes a 2008 Leth Gruner Veltliner from Austria or a 2007 Dr. Konstantin Frank Finger Lakes Riesling from New York with grilled Scottish salmon with French lentil and olive ragout, petit pois puree, salsify and grain-mustard chantilly.
To accompany butter-braised Maine lobster tail with leek and fava bean stew, sauce Newburg and pommes Maxim, Burns opts for the 2005 Tablas Creek Espirit de Beaucastel, a white Rhone-style blend of Grenache blanc, Roussanne and a touch of Viognier.
On a generally more modest scale, Patois wine buyer and sommelier Rebecca Tarpy manages a list with slightly more than 100 labels to pair with chef Aaron Burgau's cuisine.
Tarpy moved to New Orleans from Oregon three years ago, but both her father and grandfather were born here, and she has visited often and is familiar with the city's cuisine.
"Even when I was in Oregon I worked for Cajun- and Creole-style restaurants," she says. She also appreciates the some of her prior home's traditions, such as Oregon Pinot Noir.
"I wish I could incorporate more than four Oregon Pinots on my wine list," she says. "I would really like to add some lower-end red Burgundys as well, but they're still too expensive." But for those who want to splurge on a Pinot Noir, look no further than Oregon's Ken Wright bottling.
Although Pinots are popular at Patois, customers request Chardonnays and Cabernets more than any other wine. "That's what people are comfortable with," she says. Guests are drawn to the familiar names like the 2005 Maximus, Bennett Lane's Napa Meritage, which Tarpy recommends with grilled hanger steak. Another crowd favorite is the 2007 Twenty Bench Napa Cabernet, she says.
Almond-crusted Gulf fish with citrus meuniere calls for a wine like the 2007 Bastianich Sauvignon Blanc from Italy or 2008 Defesa, a white blend from Portugal that's spicy and crisp, with aromas and flavors of grapefruit and papaya and high acid on the finish.
For the sizzling octopus with blood orange vinaigrette, kalamata olives, mint and roasted radishes, she recommends the 2008 Bouchaine Syrah Rose from Carneros.
Tarpy suggests the 2008 Curveball Spinning White from Sonoma — a blend of 80 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 15 percent Gewurztraminer and 5 percent Chardonnay — as an accompaniment for Gulf shrimp with house-made fettuccine with local black-eyed peas and chiles.
"The dish can be a bit spicy and the broth has a bit of a fatty taste, so something light and crisp goes very well with it," she says.
"Pinot Noirs are so food friendly, I would serve the 2007 Emeritus Russian River Pinot Noir with the gumbo, rabbit or pheasant, or the cheese plate," she says.
For the appetizer portioned grilled lamb ribs with tart green tomato relish, Tarpy recommends a 2007 Domaine de Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem, a Côtes de Roussillon red Rhone blend from M. Chapoutier, or an earthy Italian wine like the 2007 Massolini Barbera d'Alba, which also goes well with the charcuterie appetizer's earthiness. The plate features house-made boudin, pork rilettes and hogshead cheese.
Tarpy also recommends the 2004 Russian River Michel-Schlumberger Merlot with both the charcuterie plate and an appetizer of sauteed sweetbreads.
She pairs 2007 Guidobono Nebbiolo delle Langhe with roasted pheasant breast and confit leg with foie gras emulsion, sunchoke puree, cippolini onions and roasted baby carrots.
"I also think the Guidobono is a perfect pairing for rabbit saltimbocca with mascarpone Anson Hills polenta and Marsala lemon jus," she adds.
She also recommends a 2007 Mil Piedras Malbec from Argentina to pair with the rabbit, pheasant or sweetbreads.
Served either at the beginning or end of the meal, Tarpy suggests the 2007 Henry Fessy Morgon Beaujolais or the 2005 Auvigue Pouilly Fuisse Vieilles Vignes.
At Le Meritage in the Maison Dupuy Hotel, Mark Nelson pairs wines with chef Michael Farrell's eclectic, French-inspired cuisine. A veteran of resorts including California's La Costa Resort and Spa, Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables and English Turn, Nelson curates a nearly 250-label list with additional by-the-glass parings listed on the menu. Le Meritage has an explicitly wine-focused menu concept, arranging dishes by wine pairing categories.
"We have a lot of fun with guests," Nelson says. "We explain the concept and that there's no right or wrong way to order. ... Sometimes we take the lead with guests, which allows us to express the culinary vision of the chef in pairing the wines with the cuisine."
Nelson, who has completed certification for the first round of sommelier training, said he likes to focus on smaller, lesser-known wineries. "I like to tell the story of these hand-crafted, small-batch wines and share the inspiration of the individual winemakers," he says.
As a California native, Nelson is partial to Napa Valley wines, including a fondness for the style of David Phinney, winemaker for Soda Canyon "Barrel Chaser" Bordeaux blend and Orin Swift's "The Prisoner" and Papillion.
Nelson likes to suggest off-the-beaten-path labels to open doors for wine enthusiasts and expose them to other varietals and regions. For example, only 156 cases were made of the 2008 Jules "Melange" Vin Blanc from Napa, a good match for the seared scallop with lemon-brown butter. Nelson also likes to pair the 2006 Maldonado Napa Valley Chardonnay with the scallop or Gulf shrimp and grits with tasso and red-eye gravy.
Nelson also opts for the 2007 Chappellet Mountain Cuvee, Napa, with the grilled filet of beef. He says Spain's 2007 Valminor Albarino is a good accompaniment to the beet and pistachio salad with goat cheese.
"The Bennet Lane Turn 4 Napa Cab is in demand for the savory lamb chops and filet and with the braised beef short ribs," he says. Another choice for pairing with the short ribs, he said, is the 2007 Lewis Cellars Alec's Blend Napa.
Guests often request the 2006 Catapult Shiraz-Viognier from Australia's McLaren Vale district to pair with the sage gnocchi, Nelson says.
More generally food-friendly wines include the 2005 Artesa Pinot Noir, 2007 Gary Farrell Russian River and 2007 Saintsbury Carneros Pinot Noir.
Nelson also is working on a list for the bistro that will open in an adjoining space in the Maison Dupuy. It will offer a new range of dishes and wines to pair and sample.