Conquering the Wine List
Raise your hand if you’ve been out to dinner with friends
or clients and had no idea where to start when the waiter handed you the wine list? I’ve been there. The wine list can be intimidating at first, especially if it’s more than a page, but with these tips you’ll be ordering like a pro.
Let’s start with ordering wine for yourself. The first and best way to narrow your options is to look at what’s sold by the glass, meaning you can order a glass at a time rather than buying a whole bottle. This list will often be much shorter than the full offerings. Usually there are 2 prices listed on a menu for a wine sold by the glass, or there may be a section just for by the glass options.
Okay, you’ve narrowed the choices. Now what? Start with red, white, rosé, or sparkling. Then consider what kind of wine you feel like tonight. If you know a specific grape, perfect. The lists will usually have them sorted by varietal or at least list them together.
If you’re price-conscious, avoid ordering the second cheapest selection. Usually it’s no better quality than the cheapest choice. If you’re familiar with that wine and like it though, go for it. Otherwise I’d suggest branching out and trying a wine you haven’t had before. The beauty of by the glass is it’s not a big commitment if you don’t like it.
Not sure what you want but want to seem like you know what’s going on? This is where the tasting tips from my previous post will help you. Talk to the waiter or bartender and let them know what you usually like or are interested in tonight. Do you want a dry or sweet wine? Light-bodied or heavy? Crisp and refreshing or heavy on tannins? The more you add here, the more you’ll impress your friend and help the waiter find a great wine for you.
If you’re not familiar with those terms yet, I’ve still got you. Decide what you’d like to eat and then ask the waiter what would pair well with it. For example, “I’m ordering the rainbow trout and would like to drink a white wine. What would you recommend?” or “Do you have any wine pairing suggestions for the filet?” Don’t forget to tune into Tasting Thursday over on my Instagram to learn more about describing wine for next time, too.
Now let’s get into ordering by the bottle, especially if it’s for a group. First you should find out the basic preferences of the group on red or white and order accordingly. Each bottle will have about 5 glasses, and you should assume an average of 2 glasses per person, meaning for 5 people you would order 2 bottles. You can always order more wine if you drink it all, so best to start with this average and go from there. If you end up ordering again, take into consideration if you loved what you already drank or if you want to try something different.
When ordering by the bottle I suggest branching out and trying new wines that aren’t available by the glass. Not sure where to start? That’s okay! Find a grape you like and try a wine from a different region. If there’s a wine on the menu you love, ask your waiter for a recommendation of something similar. The bigger the wine menu, the more your waiter should be prepared either to offer suggestions or send over the sommelier to help you out. They’re going to know the menu best and can let you know which wines are their favorites or hidden gems.
I love French wines, so I’ll often skip over to that section of the menu and try a bottle from a lesser known region. If I’m at a restaurant of a particular country’s cuisine, like Italian, I usually like to order wine from that country also. Wine and food from the same region tend to go well together!
Alright, you’ve chosen a wine and now the waiter is pouring it and staring at you. What are you supposed to do? First, don’t panic. All that’s expected is that you acknowledge it’s the correct wine you ordered and confirm it hasn’t gone bad. You don’t need to do a full Look, Smell, Taste, Decide tasting. Just give it a quick smell and taste for a basic impression. If it smells musty or like rotten eggs or tastes especially like vinegar, it may have gone bad in the bottle. Simply let your waiter know, and they should offer either to get you a different bottle or a new wine altogether. If it tastes normal, let the waiter know it’s good, and they’ll serve it to the rest of the table.
If you simply don’t like the wine or it’s not as expected, explain that to the waiter or somm and they should be able to guide you to a wine you’ll like more. If this is the case and you already ordered a full bottle, you should probably drink the wine but explain what you did and didn’t like about it to find a better bottle for the next order or avoid opening more of them if you ordered several for the table. Sometimes the waiter or somm will offer to get you a different wine, and in this case they shouldn’t charge you for the bottle you don’t drink.
Those are the basics for ordering wine at a restaurant and taking charge for the group. That wine menu shouldn’t intimidate you anymore! Leave a comment if you used these tips and how it went for you.