One of the first things you learn when you’re learning about wine is to never order the cheapest bottle on a restaurant’s wine list. It’s a trap, a bottle of bad juice meant to insult the taste buds of the kind of customer who deliberately buys the least-expensive thing.
Or is it? There may be places where that adage is true, but many Dallas-area restaurants are pushing back. Sommeliers and wine directors actually pride themselves on finding affordable bottles, and there are delicious choices at most of the city’s best restaurants for those with depleted budgets.
How do restaurateurs find good wines to sell at the low end of the price range? It starts with tasting a lot of different options. “I’m always on the hunt for good value,” says Allison Yoder, co-owner and wine director of Gemma. “It’s a fun challenge.”
Now, like many Dallas-area wine pros, she looks around the world, away from the most famous regions, with an eye for new discoveries. “I came from Napa Valley,” Yoder says, “where it’s really difficult to find affordable wines.” Napa is famous for a reason, but it has no monopoly on great drinking, and you can pay for delicious drinks without also paying for their brand names.
Good wine directors and sommeliers around Dallas are busting the myth of the menu’s least-expensive bottle. Boulevardier offers high-quality French bottles from lesser-known producers and regions like the Alsace and Provence, some as low as $40. John Tesar’s Oak has a number of interesting picks under $50, like an Oregon pinot gris. FT33 and Bolsa globe-hop in search of good value, to countries like Austria, South Africa, New Zealand and perpetually underrated Portugal. Gruet, a sparkling wine from New Mexico, is on nearly every list in town, since it combines easygoing charm and a very fair price.
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At Gemma, Yoder does much of the same worldwide searching. “There are certain regions of the world that I look for,” she explains. “I love to choose white wines from Italy. They’re always very good values and great wines as well.” One Italian bottle on Gemma’s list, a $36 bianchello by Claudio Morelli called “Terrazze,” is Yoder’s pick to serve alongside the restaurant’s oysters. “Very light, crisp, a little sparkling effervescence.” She’s also “loving Germany for red wines” like pinot noir and pinot meunier, still not priced high enough to match their quality. And Duchman Trebbiano, a Texas wine and crowd favorite, has been on tap at Gemma for $9 since the restaurant opened.
The secret to finding good wine is not complicated. The folks serving your wine have taste buds too, and before stocking the bar with drinks, they probably tried them to assess the quality. As a bartender takes pride in her awesome old-fashioned, and a pub owner takes pride in his list of great beer taps, so a restaurant coordinator takes pride in serving you damn good wine. As Yoder says: “You think, 'Would I drink it?'”
Yes, there may be restaurants where the old adage still holds true, like chain restaurants and other places where the wine list is arranged by a penny-pinching corporate henchmen. But if you are trusting a restaurant to deliver you top-quality food, you should also trust that they are better than the “cheapest bottle” myth. At the finest restaurants in Dallas, there’s a world of difference between affordable and cheap.
P.S. There is another variation on the myth. This version, propagated by Lifehacker and even the Wall Street Journal, is that the second-least-expensive wine is the land mine, a deliberately terrible bottle planted there to sucker people who are too proud to be caught ordering the cheapest. The most eloquent response to this is Allison Yoder’s. Having never heard this rumor before, she listened to an explanation and burst out laughing. “Oh my goodness, that’s hilarious.” And, of course, it’s not true at fine, trustworthy restaurants either.