Even wine geeks are intimidated by the leather-bound tomes that so many restaurants hand out. When the wine list doesn’t land on the table with a thud, patrons are still met with unrecognizable regions and producers. Plus, no matter where you dine or how much you know, prices can be senseless.
Fortunately, deciphering a restaurant’s list doesn’t have to be stressful. Here are five simple tips.
Ask For Help
The era of the snooty sommelier is over. Whereas yesteryear’s sommeliers were glorified sales agents who intimidated their guests by pushing expensive, predictable wines, today’s sommeliers are wine zealots, eager to share their passion and palates. So if the restaurant you’re visiting employs a wine professional, ask for advice. Most are keen to help patrons find the perfect wine, regardless of the price.
If you’re at a restaurant with an impressive wine list, seize the opportunity to be adventurous. Your dinner companions will be impressed with your courage, and you’ll learn something new.
If you like Chardonnay, for example, consider Viognier. If you like Sauvignon Blanc, try Torrontes or Albarino. If you typically order California Cabernet, consider ordering Malbec or Sangiovese. And don’t be afraid of Merlot. Even though it’s become cool to bash the grape, Merlot can be as rich as Cabernet Sauvignon, and is generally more approachable.
If everyone at your table has ordered something different, opt for an unusual wine that’ll pair with virtually everything. For white, think Austrian Gruner Veltliner. For red, think Sicilian Nero d’Avola.
Look For Value
I recently chatted with Kathy Morgan MS — one of just 186 people worldwide to earn the “master sommelier” designation — and she insisted that good deals can be found virtually everywhere.
“Don’t be afraid to order cheaper wines, especially if the wine list was put together by a sommelier or a wine professional,” she explained. “If thought is put into the list, all the wines should be good.”
If there isn’t a sommelier, Morgan advises people to seek out wines from less popular regions. At steakhouses, for example, you can often find deals on Pinot Noir from France and the United States, as most patrons order bigger wines. And at every restaurant, wines from Spain typically offer a great value.
Try Some Glasses
Morgan is also convinced that skipping the bottle list can be a wise decision. “At restaurants with serious wine programs,” she explained, “sommeliers see wines by the glass as an introduction to their programs — they know that’s where people are going to get their first impression.
Ordering by the glass also enables patrons to try a wine before committing to it — it’s not frowned upon to ask your server for a taste of something before ordering a full glass. Plus, ordering by the glass makes it easier to try a variety of wines at one meal.
Remember That You’re In Charge
Is your wine too warm? Do you feel pressured to spend more than you’d like? Is your server refilling your glass too quickly? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” speak up!
Restaurants are notorious for serving red wine too warm — reds should always be served slightly cool, at about 60-65 degrees. So if your wine tastes like it’s been sitting at room temperature, ask for an ice bucket or switch to a white wine — or beer.
If the sommelier is steering you towards something too expensive, there was probably a miscommunication. So say something. If you don’t want to let your guests know how much you’re spending, point to the price you’re thinking and ask for something similar.
Finally, don’t be embarrassed to ask your server to slow down. I always insist on finishing my glass of wine before it’s refilled. That way, I can track the wine’s evolution and better monitor how much I’ve consumed.
While there are countless other ways to navigate a restaurant’s wine program, these five tips should be easy to remember — and help elevate your next dining experience.
David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Wines.com, the fastest growing wine portal on the Internet.