“I’ll have a glass of your house Cab.”
Servers and bartenders hear it countless times in a day and it causes their unseen eyes do an exhausted roll inside their head. However, it’s still the go-to, lazy order for many people. The excuses for using it are many. Some could be intimidated to look at a wine menu. Others simply don’t care what they drink. Grandparents have just ordered wine that way for years. Either way, it’s a phrase that needs to find itself on the extinction list.
For those who aren’t in the know, ordering a house wine is basically saying, “just give me your cheapest glass, I don’t care who makes it.”
The phrase started to become popular back in the 70’s and 80’s when restaurants would stock up on huge jugs of cheap wine, many times without even knowing what grape(s) it was made from, and just threw it on their menu as house red or house white.
What is house wine?
The origins of how house wines were made were a dark time in California’s wine country. Producers would take their low quality wine, usually the second press from many different grapes, and mix it all together into one big concoction of blandness. The end result was a $2 glass of forgettable table wine.
Since the 70’s and 80’s, California wine country has stepped up its wine game, so much so that most restaurants don’t even have a house wine anymore. Yet the phrase is still being used by many people, not knowing its connotation. It’s the equivalent of going to Nordstrom’s, opening the front door and immediately saying, “I’ll just take a bag of tube socks.” Seriously, give that a shot next time and see the looks you get.
The world of viticulture has given us so much over the centuries, thousands of varietals from hundreds of places, each with different flavors, textures, nuances, pairings, and purposes, yet many people just stick with the one or two varietals they know, usually house Cabernet or house Chardonnay.
The issue isn’t in ordering a Cabernet or Chardonnay. Cabernet and Chardonnay are tried and true varietals that offer so much. Bottles of them can go for thousands of dollars and win awards for their producers. But, that doesn’t mean you should stick to only ordering those or just their house versions.
Step 1: How to lean away from the house wine mentality
Educate yourself, just a little. I’m not talking about getting crazy with wine encyclopedias, maps and flash cards. I’m talking about basic stuff, like finding websites with blogs and videos that explain practical info like California wine trends beyond Cabernet.
The first step in educating yourself is to simply understand what aspects of wine you like and don’t like when you drink it. Do you like black tea, then you probably like tannins, like those found in Cabernet Sauvignon. Do you prefer cherries over blackberries, then you’d probably like Pinot Noir. Do you love the smell of fresh cut flowers, then give Viognier a shot.
Understanding what components in wine you like will allow you the opportunity to order more confidently, instead of blindly asking for the dealers choice when dining out.
Step 2: How do we decide what to order?
Instead of ordering the house wine ask yourself, “What do I feel like having tonight?”
Would you ever walk into a restaurant and just blurt out, “I’ll take a plate of the house food.” Of course not. You’d look at the menu, check your internal voice of what you’re feeling like eating, hone in on what sounds good on the menu and order accordingly.
Wine is just as much of an experience as the food you eat. For example: you’d order a steak and potatoes if you wanted something hearty. You’d order sea bass and spinach because you want something a little lighter and more delicate. You’d order cheese and charcuterie because you just want to graze and chat.
Wine is the same. You’d order Cabernet Sauvignon because you want something bold to match a nice cut of meat. You’d order a Pinot Noir because you want something lighter in body that won’t overpower the dish. And you’d probably order a Sauvignon Blanc because you want something crisp and refreshing on a warm day.
[Editor’s note: Sauvignon Blancs – or as our colleague calls them, Savi B’s – are trending higher and so are their prices. Here is a crisp, sharp, refreshing zesty Sauvignon Blanc from Russian River region in California for $22]
Step 3: Step outside your comfort zone
The stubborn would quickly answer, “I like Chardonnay and it’s perfectly fine to order it everytime.” And you know what? You’re right. You can order it every time. But you‘re missing out.
When I was a kid I loved vanilla ice cream. I ordered it every time. But eventually I’d taste my dad’s butter pecan, my mom’s mint chip, or my brother’s bright blue bubble gum ice cream, and it gave me different experiences with ice cream. Do I still order vanilla today? From time to time, yes, because on occasion it’s exactly what I want. But there’s also dozens of other flavors I know I love and crave, and that makes dessert interesting.
Think of the reason you like cookies and cream, chocolate chip, or cookie dough ice cream. Why do you like all of them? Because they all have a vanilla base. Wine can be thought of the same way. Why do you like Cabernet? Likely because it’s a bold red, with dark red and black fruits. Guess what, you’d probably also like Merlot, Malbec and Petite Sirah. You’re a Chardonnay person? Try Viognier, Chenin Blanc or Marsanne, all of which are fuller bodied whites with so much to offer.
I know what you’re probably thinking, “Micah, you’re just trying to upsell me, trying to pry open my wallet and spend a few extra bucks.” That’s the reason some ask for the house wine in the first place, they don’t want to break the bank. Well, good news, all of the varietals I’ve mentioned can be enjoyed at a reasonable price – very reasonable. A bottle of Vouvray Chenin Blanc, $12. Mendoza Malbec, $12. Southern Rhône Marsanne, $13.
These aren’t expensive experiments. Best case scenario, you add a new favorite wine to the repertoire. Worse case scenario, you drink it and find you don’t like it right now. But you know what? You might remember it and crave it later on as you develop your wine palate.
It’s nice to keep the taste buds guessing by changing it up from time to time. It can also make you really appreciate that favorite glass of Chardonnay when you decide to go back to it.
But, most importantly in all of this, move away from just ordering a glass of house wine, because no one looks good in tube socks eating bowls of just vanilla ice cream.
Micah Sampson is a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and vintner who recently launched his first wine label Llama Llama Wines.