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Ask The Bartender 

But don't expect wine advice to be given straight up

I've always found bartenders fascinating. These shrink substitutes, knowledge sherpas and purveyors of alcoholic bliss command immediate respect for whatever reason, and I cannot deny my jealousy of a few of them. Not only do they appear to be "on" all the time, they have to be experts at everything in the establishment: the menu, the newest/hottest brands of vodka and, of course, the wine list. So, with all that expertise, what wines are bartenders recommending these days? I had to ask.

I found that, for the most part, bartenders at hot bars are too frickin' busy to ponder your question. They'll list the selections and pray the customer has a clue -- and, if the answer is no, pour the sub-par house wine with a patient smile. Or, when asked, one bartender at a popular Tampa beer joint simply goes by gut. She eyes a white wine inquisitor up and down, then assesses how sophisticated his/her palate might be. One option is "house wine" and the other might be Raymond Chardonnay. She says her system works every time. But I wonder if a bad hair day would condemn me to plunk? Lesson learned: Ask for a wine list. TIP: In a bar setting, you don't know how much wine by the glass has been sold, so your beverage could have been opened for days. Since I'm a stickler for return on my $8 wine investment, I often annoy bartenders by asking how long a bottle has been fermenting in its own oxygen. The investigation takes up two more precious minutes, but I tip well, so they usually indulge me. This process regularly results in a freshly popped bottle.

But the best service usually occurs at restaurant bars. Trained in the arts of food and wine, those bartenders direct people to what will harmonize with the menu. Ashley Crichlow, bartender at Fritti in Atlanta, steers people away from the typical varietals and asks them to explore the restaurant's Italian wines by the glass. To customers looking for white wine, she recommends Gavi di Gavi, a relatively obscure, fruity white. For reds, she recommends the Italian zinfandel look-alike Primitivo, which matches really well with Fritti's pizzas. Keith Wlosinski, former bartender at Gallery Eclectic Bistro in Tampa, liked to suggest wines that both complement the food and taste good alone. His choices? Evolution #9 from Oregon's Sokol Blosser Winery and Rombauer zinfandel.

So wine recommendations, like bartenders, can come on all different levels: expert to lazy. Arm yourself with a little bit of knowledge, and you'll come out ahead.

Recommended Wines

Deloach Vineyards 2004 Gewurztraminer Early Harvest Russian River The best Gewurztraminer I've had in a long time. Fragrant with ripe peaches, pears and cinnamon. Quaffable with slightly sweet red apples, easy acids and a mineral finish. So complex and so worth every penny. Sweetness = 3. $14 4.5 stars.

Santa Carolina 2003 Syrah Barrica Selection Rapel Valley (Chile) Sultry, elegant blueberry and blackberry, flanked by soft vanilla and pungent tobacco. Deliciously drinkable stuff from this Chilean rising star. Sw = 2. $14. 4 stars.

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