-By Ranjith Chandrasiri-

Ok, with the Valentine’s Day around the corner, you’ve finally decided to take the special woman in your life to a fancy restaurant and have made a dinner reservation ahead of time for Valentine’s night. You know she likes wine and you want to impress her but you know absolutely nothing about wine. Wine books are always available in book stores in the food sections but if you don’t want to leave the comfort of your desk, there’s always the net. You surf the net, explore and find out as much as you can.

So now that you’ve done some homework, here’s what you do once you’ve made it to the restaurant, and you’ve just been seated:

If your dining partner is truly important to you, it is definitely to your advantage to whisper the magic words: “Let’s have some wine.” And this I can say after 25+ years in the restaurant business: women prefer wine! And women prefer men who drink wine!!

So what’s next?

A waiter will approach to ask if you would like to start with a cocktail or glass of wine. Remember that you are there to please your lady, not the server. If you can afford it, why not start off with a glass of champagne? Ask your waiter for either two glasses, or two splits (the miniature airplane sized bottles), of sparkling wine. In the nicest restaurants, they will usually serve you some kind of French Champagne. In middle range restaurants, it’s usually a California or Australian sparkler. Don’t worry about the quality, since both are usually quite good and make perfect ice breakers — and you’re on your way!

Do take a good look at the wine list, whether you know what you’re looking at or not. The important thing is to look good doing it — this is romance, after all. You should also remember this: no matter where you are, do not order the cheapest wine because if she should happen to find out, you are just not going to look good. I suggest a bottle for around Rs 4000- 6000, which is the most sensible price range even among connoisseurs. Oh, you can bump it up an extra Rs 2000 – 3000 if you want something special.

After all it doesn’t hurt to ask for help, that’s what the sommeliers are for. Most women are impressed by that anyhow – like asking for directions on the road. Again, the idea is to look good doing it. Call over your waiter – or in the finest places, the sommelier, also known as a wine steward – and ask for a recommendation.

Now, you should be looking at your dinner menus. Perhaps you’re worried about remembering what goes with what. Ever heard the old saying, “red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat”? Forget you ever heard it. Just remember few guidelines.

Common sense is first. Don’t ever try to match food and wine that you don’t like with the hopes of creating something that you do like. Always start with a wine that you like all by itself – most of the wine will be consumed without the benefit of the food. Think about it – do you really think that you’re going to have a sip of wine with every single bite? No! Chances are that you’d still have some wine left after the food is gone. Even if the match is not perfect, at least you’ve got a wine that you enjoy.

A better approach would be to try to match the weight of the food with the weight of the wine. To show their best, heavy food needs big wine. Medium food needs medium wine. Light, delicate food needs – you can figure it out from here. Another idea is to match the wine with the sauce or the predominant flavor of the food.

Another bit of good old common sense comes from the old saying, “what grows together goes together.” If you’re eating some sort of regional cuisine, try a regional wine. For example, French cheese and French wine, pasta and an Italian red, steak and Cabernet, barbecue and Zinfandel (what’s more American than that?). This may be a reach, but I bet nothing would go better with a kangaroo patty than a nice Aussie Shiraz!

Don’t panic. Just follow this fool-proof method: select one of the two most food-flexible wines in the world, one of which is a white, and the other a red. So you ask her, “Would you prefer a white or a red?”

Plan to order a full bottle of wine. Why? Bottles are so much more romantic and the opening and poring ritual call for the special occasion. Don’t worry about whether you can finish the bottle. But do not, under any circumstance, ask for a doggy bag for any leftover wine; since it is not a thing for a cultivated man to do. Bottom line: drink slowly, and only as much as you safely can.

Now that you have ordered the bottle you like, the waiter or sommelier will then wish to perform the serving ritual; which is when he shows you the bottle, opens it, and asks you to taste and approve it.

Relax! It’s really all based on common-sense traditions, and the simple fact is that you have absolutely no obligation to do anything in particular but sit and wait for the wine to be poured.

The server will bring out the bottle and show you the label. This is simply to ensure that you’re getting the exact wine you ordered. Should it be a different wine, different vintage, or in any way not what you ordered, simply say so, and it should be replaced with the correct bottle. (Or at least the waiter will explain why he brought a substitute – but he should really have asked you first.)

Then the waiter will pull the cork. The bottle should never be brought to the table already opened. The tradition of opening the bottle in your sight was established as a way to prove that no one substituted “lesser” wine for the contents of your bottle when it was out of your sight.

Once he’s removed the cork, he’ll offer it to you for inspection. This worries a lot of people, who fear that they’re expected to perform in some way. All you really have to do is put it down, out of the way. If you want to pick it up, sniff it, look at it knowingly, put it in your pocket as a souvenir, feel free. In theory, you might be able to get a hint of the wine’s condition if the cork is soft, crumbly, wet or smells funny, but you’ll learn nothing here that won’t become evident in the glass.

The waiter then pours a small taste into your glass. Swirl it, sniff it, taste it and give a nod approval. He’ll then pour the lady first and return to fill your glass.

In the unlikely event that you feel something is wrong with the wine — particularly if it has that dank, musty, “wet cardboard” or “damp basement” aroma that indicates it was afflicted by a bad cork — you have the right to send the wine back and request a replacement. In practice, however, this is rarely a problem in modern times.

That’s all there is to it! It takes longer to explain than it takes to endure at the table. Most important, bear in mind that the purpose of the “ritual” isn’t to embarrass you or show you up as a non-expert; it’s really all just tradition, based on giving you, the diner, the wine you ordered in good condition. And of course the ritual adds romance to a special occasion.