Wine List Basics

Wine Being Served

You've been seated at a great table at a restaurant you're excited about. The music is low, the lighting is soft, and you know you are in good hands. Then, you pick up the wine list and panic sets in. Perhaps you have to order for an entire table, or impress a date. Perhaps you're determined to get the best wine for your budget, or order a wine you've never tried before, but are weary of winding up with something you don't like. Sound familiar? Here are a few tips to help you make a selection with confidence and ease.

What you should bring to the table

The better you understand what you are looking for in a wine, the easier it will be for you to find an appropriate selection on a restaurant's wine list. Everyone's palate is different, so what matters most at the dinner table is not how “good” a wine is supposed to be, but how much you and your guests enjoy it. If you know you tend to prefer sweet over dry whites, lighter reds over heavily tannic ones, or oaky chardonnays over acidic pinot grigios, make sure you bring that to the table. Even knowing whether you are in the mood for a red or white will help. (Of course, being open-minded might also allow you to discover that you really do enjoy something you thought you didn't).

Another thing you should know before picking up the wine list is at least a general idea of how much wine you will require and what you are willing to spend. If your party is large, consider multiple bottles or a large format bottle; if it is small or if not everyone is drinking, consider a half bottle or ordering wines by the glass. Knowing what you are looking for before you pick up the wine list will make even the most extensive wine list less overwhelming—you can simply eliminate those categories or price ranges you are not interested in.

The anatomy of a wine list

The organization of a wine list varies greatly from restaurant to restaurant, however the overriding principle of most wine lists is to present the wine to you in a logical, easily accessible manner. Wines are almost always divided into at least two sections, most commonly by portion size (such as wines by the glass and wines by the bottle), or grape category (such as sparkling, red, and white). Larger wine lists often employ even further classification, such as by grape type (chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon), location (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chianti, California), or even wine styles (“crisp whites,” “bold reds”). Often several classification methods are combined to create more specific categories on a wine list (“French Reds,” “New World Whites,” “Australian Shiraz”), especially if the wine list is extensive. Within categories, wines are often listed from lightest to heaviest, both in terms of flavor and body.

No matter how they are classifiied, you can be sure that wines will be clearly identified. Most wine lists include the producer, the region, the grape type, the year, and of course the price of the wine. Some will even go as far as to offer a brief description, or occasionally, a suggested food pairing.

How to ask for advice

Never hesitate to ask for assistance or advice from the restaurant's wait staff, wine steward, or sommelier. That's what they are there for! But remember, a conversation is a two way street—the more you can share with the restaurant staff, such as your preferences, your budget, and the dishes you are ordering from the menu, the better the staff will be able to recommend a wine they think you will enjoy.

Don't be afraid to ask for advice specific to your situation. Try questions like: “We are thinking of ordering the salmon and the filet mignon; can you suggest a wine that would pair well with both dishes?” “I generally like Oregon Pinot Noir but don't see any on your wine list. Is there a similarly styled wine you recommend?” “I see your list focuses on German wines and I'm not very familiar with them. Could you explain the difference between this Riesling and this Gewürztraminer?” “We'd like to spend about $60 on wine; is there a Cabernet you suggest?”

You shouldn't be afraid to ask questions, ever. However, if you are trying to impress a date or simply don't want to look foolish in front of your companions, you may wish to word your questions tactfully. A favorite technique, especially if you are afraid of mispronouncing words or if you don't want to state your wine budget out loud, is to simply point at the wine list while the sommelier or waiter is watching. Saying something like “we're looking for something like this” while pointing directly to a price can be quite effective, and any savvy waiter or sommelier should understand what you are doing.

What about wine markup?

It is common for restaurants to price wines at 2-3 times the retail price, and sometimes more. If your main concern is wine markup, you may want to consider wines from lesser-known regions, made from lesser-known grapes, or from lesser-known vintages. These are often included on a wine list because a sommelier recognizes their merit, but they may not be marked up as much as say, a popular Cabernet or Chardonnay, which the restaurant knows will get ordered. Consider wines from regions such as Alsace in France, or countries such as Spain or South Africa, or consider varietals such as Zinfandel, or Chenin Blanc and sparkling wines such as Prosecco and Cava. If you are adventurous, this can be an excellent way to discover and try new wines.

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