Can we have a bottle of Sancerre?" the customer snaps, hopefully not noticing my crestfallen look as I retreat from the table. Four-hundred-plus selections on my list, all but one of them ignored: Sancerre it is.
"Did they even open the wine list?" I wonder to myself. Probably not, and chances are that at many restaurants they're missing out on wines they might like more, yet cost less.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with drinking what you like, whether it's Sancerre or pinot grigio, another wine that often gets ordered reflexively. But a restaurateur or sommelier with a more cynical mindset can grow to love the Sancerre- or pinot-grigio-only patrons since they're easy to fleece. These guests rarely even look at the brand, so it's an opportune chance to buy low and sell high; mark up the wine like mad and laugh "no one looks at my list" all the way to the bank. Adding insult to injury, many of these wines aren't just overpriced, they're boring.
To avoid walking into that trap, it's worth taking at least a glance at the list rather than ordering your favorite variety blindly. Make a note of the names of producers' wines you've liked in the past and stick to them, since there are plenty of Sancerres and pinot grigios that fall far short of being sure things.
Sancerres and Suitable Alternatives
Two names that tend to deliver from Sancerre: Henry Natter and Michel Thomas. Both deliver consistently on the mineral and green apple flavors Sancerre is known for, without resorting to Reserve-level prices.
Even better, learn about regions that make similar wines that tend to cost less. France's Sancerre, for example, is the best known of several Loire Valley wines made from sauvignon blanc grapes; across the river is Pouilly-Fumé, which shares some of Sancerre's fame, but the real values are in appellations like Cheverny, Quincy and Reuilly, or even St. Bris, across the border in what is technically Burgundy. All make 100% sauvignon blanc wines that have much of the minerally, dry, high-acid qualities that you find in good Sancerres--yet they cost less since they're not as fashionable or familiar.
If you spot Clotilde Davenne from St. Bris or Domaine des Huards from Cheverny on a wine list, for example, the wine director put some thought into the selections. Both wines are classic, zingy, sauvignon blancs very similar to the Sancerre style and could come in at almost half the price of a similar-quality Sancerre.
Escape from the Italian Same-Old
Italy, similarly, has dozens if not hundreds of indigenous grape varieties that could take pinot grigio's place to some degree: Fiano, Friulano, Falanghina … and that's just the "F"s.
Never heard of Masi 'Masianco,' Clelia Romano 'Colli di Lapio' Fiano d'Avellino or Colle dei Bardellini Pigato? Not surprising. But all are modestly priced white wines that are similar in flavor and style to pinot grigio, but are likely to deliver more value for dollar.
The reason these wines are a safe bet is that the market isn't screaming for Quincy or St. Bris (not yet, at least). Surely, there are some clunkers from those regions too, but few of them have hit U.S. shores so far. A distributor doesn't import one of these wines to the U.S. willy-nilly; it's fighting an uphill battle against anonymity, so it better deliver the goods at the right price. Otherwise, the distributor winds up with an "Ark of the Covenant" wine languishing in the warehouse.
The Easy Way
If you're not into memorizing winery names, that's no problem. Just remember the regions. Given an unfamiliar Sancerre and an unfamiliar Cheverny, the latter is the better bet--and probably the cheaper one, too.
And the more sensitive wine directors among us will take some satisfaction in knowing you actually took the time to look at the list.
(Jim Clarke, Forbes.com)