A Wine That Outshines Its Label

When a server recommends a generic-looking bottle, sometimes it pays to listen.
wine service

I’ve had harder tables than yours,” the waiter said with a slight smile, after we ordered one of nearly everything on the menu and told him the dishes could land in front of anyone. It was a funny thing to hear coming from a Frenchman in a very formal dining room—the sort where you could drive an MG between the tables and an aloof attentiveness is more common than smiles from servers.

That was a hint that he read the table well, figured out within moments that we were an easy-going trio up for some fun. That was confirmed when we asked for help choosing the wines for the meal. We told him we’d like to have two bottles, and I added that both could be white, since most of the meal was fish or veg. He thought for a second and said, “I have the second wine for you,” pointing to a $76 bottle on a list with very few choices in the two-digit range. I feared at first he’d read not the table but my cheap dress and decided that was all we could afford. (He was right, but still...) But it was a vin de table, a wine which, by French wine law, can bear no indication of place, grape varieties, or even vintage, which tends to make it a pretty hard sell. He pegged us as adventurous, too.

It’s true that much vin de table is total plonk. But, in my estimation, if a vin de table makes it to these shores—and particularly to a restaurant wine list—it must be made by someone who believes it’s worth giving up a more prestigious label in order to work outside the rules. And if a restaurant specializing in fancy French wines and the people who drink them sports an obscure vin de table, it must be on the list because someone in the house loves it. Our waiter was that guy. “It’s a vin de table, but it’s very good,” he said eagerly. “Henri Milan works in St-Rémy-de-Provence; he makes wines with very natural methods. It’s a blend of Rolle, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc from Provence. There’s a little bit of Chardonnay and Muscat in there, too.”

And it was delicious, meaty as marzipan yet vivacious and lively, like Mark Morris charging across a stage. The conversation turned to Provence, the wine reminding us of everything from almond nougat to Provençal hillsides, the wild thyme in full flower and the sun basking everything in a warm, golden glow. My husband mentioned Sherry, reacting positively to the wine’s nuttiness and almost salty minerality. Our friend Bill summed it up with a profound “wow.” The waiter nodded, that slight smile playing on his face, “told you so” combined with “you told me as much,” the dance between server and diner at its most graceful.

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