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High on the Vine: Ordering Wine with Confidence

Wine lists can be intimidating. Aria's Andres Loaiza offers advice on how to shake the fear.

Wine lists scare me or, at the very minimum, make me apprehensive. I’ve been diving into this world of fermented grape juice for several years now, and still I can stare at a list and not recognize producers, regions, and occasionally a grape varietal.

When I’m with a group and tasked with selecting something for the table, it’s all the more nerve-racking. Faced with a selection of wines I’ve never had and told to pick one that will match everyone’s personal preferences and pair with food, I feel my palms getting sweaty.

It is in these moments that I wish Andres Loaiza were in the dining room. Aria’s general manager and wine director of six years, Loaiza is the type of somm who puts you at ease. A gracious character with a wine-is-fun-let’s-try-this-bottle attitude, the man is an excellent guide for the uncertain. I talked with Loaiza to learn a few tricks of his trade on how to choose wine with confidence.

How do you approach a wine list you’ve never seen before? I like to take my time. I think most people make this mistake: It’s like they’re holding the wine book or sheet of paper and they’re stressed out. They feel like, “I have to make a decision, and I have to make it quick!” If you like clothes, you go into a store and you take your time to find something that fits you. I think wine should be the same thing. Take a deep breath.

A good approach is to break it apart. Understand where the by-the-glass section is, and if the bottle selection seems very extensive, order a glass to buy time. If everything seems too extensive, then maybe a gin and tonic sounds good while you process the list.

I tend to look for things that I know. It gives me an idea of the palate of the person who made the list. I look for patterns. Then as I enjoy my cocktail or just that quick glass of wine I ordered, I scan the table and ask people what they feel like.

It’s so much about the mood that you’re in. Keeping in mind what you’re eating is important, but more than anything, what’s important is your mood and what you feel like drinking.

Do certain regions or grapes tend to be more value-driven than others? Yes, definitely. The reality is that if you to go Napa or Bordeaux, you’re paying a big price just for the land. But it’s different if you go to smaller regions, lesser known regions like the south of France or Sicily, and parts of Argentina as well as Uruguay. There’s also Portugal.

I love the whites of Galicia in northwestern Spain. Those can be fantastic value and great food wines. Now, we’re also seeing Treixadura [a Portuguese white that can have citrusy notes] and other new varietals. Before, we only thought about Vinho Verde [another Portuguese white] as just simple wines nobody thought anything about. Now, they’re more popular and we’re seeing better quality. Txakolina has seen a big uproar lately.

I’m loving Chenin Blanc right now. Everybody knows Chenin Blanc as the varietal of Vouvray, but finally people are beginning to understand it more. Chenin Blanc has fallen in a similar path as Riesling has had in the past. It’s just as misunderstood. Now, more and more people are putting more wines in their programs to show that it can be a great food wine.

Let’s say you’re with three other people and you know that you’re going to order several bottles of wine. I feel like at some point, you could serve Two Buck Chuck and everyone would be fine. Do you start off with more expensive bottles and then go down? Ask what do they want to do. I think it’s just communication. I try to stay in the middle range. For me, that’s somewhere between $60-$80 and then I bounce around there. I don’t think necessarily when you choose something that has a higher price tag that you get greater joy out of it. I actually think when you buy that bottle that’s $20 and it’s amazing—that is the Holy Grail to me.

Aria has a very eclectic wine list. You have a wine from here in Georgia and some wines from Greece. From the diner’s perspective, when do you take that risk to order something you’ve never had or thought about? If you’re at a restaurant and you want to try something different, first try to talk to the sommelier. If I’m on the floor, I tend to ask people what they like or what they usually drink. I try to take them down to a path that is not too extreme so you’re still introducing the person to something new without scarring them for life. As a somm, you have to listen to what the person is telling you.