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Chain restaurant wines: Expect the expected 

Although many foodies deny it, we all eat at chains, occasionally ... in dark times ... perhaps forced when the in-laws visit. I confess an occasional hankering for the divine Saucy Shrimp at Bonefish Grill or the crack-laced lettuce wraps at PF Chang's. I need a drink to drown my guilty pleasures, but one thing lacking at most chains is a palatable wine selection. Most bulk-buying chains craft wine lists that neatly match at all locations -- good for consistency and cost, not so good for innovative vino. But, hey, you're eating at a chain, you can't really expect the unexpected, right? Sure, some high-end locales like Roy's and Fleming's customize their list, but affordable casual dining makes headlines these days. For the sake of this column, I had to throw out some places, like Applebee's, Chili's, TGI Friday's and Red Lobster whose listless wines reflect an embarrassing void of creativity. The best chain wine highlights follow. (Selections may vary depending on location.)

At Carrabba's, Pollo Rosa Maria remains my go-to entrée, washed down with the light-hearted, fairly fruity Angeline Pinot Noir. The earthiness complements the chicken's mushroomy sauce and the acidity eases the saltiness of the prosciutto. A tomato cream sauce, like that bathing the Mezzaluna Pasta, can be a bitch to pair up -- creaminess needs a white wine with cutting acidity to balance it out. Nothing fits perfectly on the Carrabba's wine list but the Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc would work. For the strictly tomato-based items there's a passable Gabbiano Chianti. (More about Chianti)

PF Chang's built one of the better wine lists of the chain gang. They realize their food smacks heavily of soy, ginger, garlic and chilies so they offer a rather appropriate -- dare I say, impressive? -- selection of wines chosen to harmonize with the motley menu, especially full-flavored spice bombs like Kung Pao Chicken. In general, white pacifies a burning palate better than red, like the S.A. Prum Riesling or Treana Marsanne/Viognier. The food-friendly reds that pair with their non-chile-laden beef choices: Catena Malbec or Banfi Chianti Classico. But if you just want a frickin' great bottle of wine, grab the Flowers Pinot Noir. (Read about my trip to Flowers Vineyard and Winery).

Olive Garden, well, as my food critic friend Brian recently said, "It's difficult to do, but you have to ignore the marketing materials, commercials and menu whenever they refer to this as an Italian restaurant." They attempt to show allegiance via the wine list, which consists of mostly of Italian names, albeit nothing really remarkable. Tomato-based items match well with either the Rocca delle Macie Chiantis or Bertani Valpolicella. For a soothing white to mask agonizing family chatter (yours or others'), order the Bertani Due Uve.

Maggiano's might be another homogenized, Americanized Italian joint, but their wine list kicks Olive Garden's ass. Sharp and palate-pleasing Frescobaldi Castiglioni Chianti and Ferrari Carano Siena are enough motivation to choose Maggiano's over that inexplicably popular "bottomless" salad.

Bonefish Grill, started in my hometown of Tampa Bay, occupies a warm, fuzzy corner of my heart. Their wine list balances nicely between white and reds but any grilled fish with lemon butter sauce will pair with the soft, elegant King Estate Pinot Gris.

Chain wine lists bear some glimmers of hope, yet, unfortunately, the majority remain tiresome. But they're fine for what they are -- accompaniments to chain food. Bon appétit.

Recommended Wines

Mondavi 2006 Private Selection Meritage (California) A soft, low tannin cabernet sauvignon blend oozing blackberry, black cherry, sweet vanilla, bittersweet chocolate and earthy tobacco. Complex enough to please the snobs and easy drinking enough for the newbies. Sw=1. $11. 4 stars.

Joseph Drouhin Vero 2006 Pinot Noir Bourgogne (France) From Burgundy's Drouhin family comes an affordable, light-hearted red Burgundy with tart cherry, refined tannins and a dry, dusty earthiness. Sw=1. $22. 4 stars.

Sweetness (Sw) rating: 1-10. Star rating: 1-5. Reach Taylor at taylor.eason@cln.com, on Twitter @tayloreason and on Facebook.

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