"A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine."
Yes, but which wine?
No problem in a little bistro where only half-a-dozen wines are listed on the side of the menu, but what happens in a gastronomic palace with several hundred entries on the wine list?
Certainly, the first consideration is price. André Vrinat, owner of the restaurant Taillevent, has found that if clients spend on wine about one-third of the total for the meal they will not feel they have spent too much and yet they will be able to afford good wine.
This is as good a rule of thumb as any, but it poses another problem: how to get as much for that third as possible.
If drinking according to thirst is the consideration, obviously great wines are out of the question. What is called for is a good rosé, a Beaujolais or a light dry Loire Valley white such as Sancerre or Pouilly-fumé.
Another solution, unlikely as it may sound, is to drink champagne. Not a famous brand champagne, but a small crémant, somewhat less sparkling, but with the same delightful character that has made champagne so famous, and at half the price.
If, on the other hand, the idea is to drink the best wine the one-third rule will allow, there are a number of ways to achieve this.
Wine merchant Jean-Baptiste Chaudet advises avoiding the famous first growths of Bordeaux or Burgundies such as Romanée-Conti, the most expensive wine in France.
For instance, if a Sauternes is to be drunk with foie gras, a Château d'Yquem will cost two or three times as much as a Château de Suduiraut or a Château Guiraud, both rated just below the former and nearly as good.
Carrying this line even further, he suggests staying away from Bordeaux and Burgundy entirely. Instead of an expensive Volnay to go with a standing rib roast, a moderately priced Chinon from the Loire in a good year will do just as nicely.
And an Hermitage or a Côte Rôtie from the Rhône Valley is perfect with game at several times less than a more renowned Richebourg or a La Tâche.
The same sort of approach can be used with vintage years. Because of too much advance publicity, certain years such as 1959 and 1964 become over-inflated, both in price and reputation.
Most experts now agree that 1961 was better and will last much longer than either of them. But 1962 is even less well-known and only slightly inferior to 1961.
And among older wines, the great 1947s and 1949s almost completely eclipsed the 1948s, which were good wines even then, and now, 20 years later, are catching up.
Prize-winning bistro owner Bernard Péret follows a variant of these systems. He often chooses a famous wine from a poor year on the theory that a Château Latour or a Château Haut-Brion is always so carefully made that even in mediocre years such as 1963 or 1958 it will be good.
One last suggestion from Marcel Lugan, executive director of the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, is to remember that wine ages twice as fast in a half-bottle as in a bottle, so any half-bottle more than ten years old is a risk. Nevertheless, in a young, and therefore still inexpensive vintage, this can be an advantage. Obviously, the exact opposite is true for a magnum.