When you go out to eat, the general steps for ordering wine include the following: You are presented with a wine list, which has been curated by the restaurant’s sommelier, beverage director, or owner. You peruse that wine list and acquaint yourself with the choices available to you, and then you order a bottle off that list from your waiter. But what if I told you that at many restaurants and wine bars, the wines on the list aren’t the only wines available? In fact, for those in the know, there is a secret list of wine bottles that restaurants and bars reserve for their best customers, those who truly seem to be “wine geeks.” Usually, this covert list includes bottles the establishment is excited about and yet doesn’t list for one reason or another — they only have a limited quantity, say, or the wine variety just doesn’t fit the theme of the main list. So how do you get access to this “secret” stash of wine? Let me be your guide.
One of the easiest ways to get access to a locale’s secret list is to simply be super passionate about wine and willing to talk about it. “For enthusiasts and industry folks, we always have a limited quantity of something not on the list that has the potential to show up in your glass,” the owner of a critically acclaimed wine bar in New York told me. His recommendation for ensuring you’re one of those lucky people is to actually converse with your server or the people behind the bar. “We like to share wines we’re really excited about with people who we think will be into them, too. If you start talking to us about the wines you love and give the impression you’re really digging a wine we just poured, it’s incredibly likely that we’ll ask you if you want to taste something not on the list.”
Another strategy is to become a regular. While it’s well known that regulars often get comped a free drink here or there, or maybe given a discount on occasion, they also get to share bottles with the staff that the staff or owner may have been saving for themselves. “Sometimes a wine rep comes in and they have a bottle we really love, but they don’t have a large enough quantity for me to put it on our main list,” says the owner of a trendy new Asian restaurant in the East Village. “If we really loved the wine, I usually buy it anyway and save it for staff drinks at the end of the night, or offer it to my regulars. My list changes often, but not as regularly as some of my best customers come in, so I love having bottles to offer them that are special.”
While it’s fun to hang out at a wine bar or casual neighborhood restaurant and drink the bottles the staff is drinking, where the secret list really sparkles is at the critically acclaimed dining locations you normally need to score a reservation for weeks in advance. I met up with the somm of a restaurant owned by one of New York’s most highly respected restaurant groups who shared why this is. “When you’re involved in a restaurant tons of people want access to, you get to taste a lot of wine,” the somm told me. “Every one of us who works here is a huge wine geek. Very often the wine we taste with a rep may not fit within the theme we’ve established for the main list — for example, at our Italian restaurant, we curate an all-Italian list; at one of our other restaurants, it’s a list that is mostly Old World wines, etc. That being said, we might love the bottle we just tasted, even if it doesn’t fit within the theme, so we buy a few cases.”
These bottles are usually pretty spectacular, not to mention fun, and this somm’s advice for getting access to them was pretty simple. “If you’re looking at our main list and don’t see anything you’re in the mood for, ask your server or the somm if we happen to have any bottles not on the list. You’ll be rewarded with a small folder we keep with a record of every off-list bottle. Usually there’s some pretty crazy stuff, like older-vintage wines or rare Champagnes.”
Once you gain access, you may never want to order from the actual wine list ever again.