Whether you’re new to the world of wine or a certified professional, navigating a restaurant wine list can seem like a chore. Unfamiliar terms, unpronounceable names, or worse, a list that’s so long it leaves you wishing for CliffsNotes.
While you might be tempted to go with the close-your-eyes-and-point method, a few general strategies should help you breeze through the options. Then you can get on to the important task of enjoying your wine.
Arm Yourself with the Basics
Refresh your knowledge about the characteristics of common grapes, such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. Most wine lists will have at least two or three examples of these varietals on offer.
Knowing that Chardonnay tends to exhibit citrus and tropical fruit characteristics, or that Cabernet Sauvignon leans toward expressive black fruit (cherries and currents) aromas, can give you a head start, even if the wine is a blend.
General familiarity with major winemaking regions can also be helpful. Old World wines from Europe tend to be dry and less full-bodied, with a more subtle flavor profile.
Wines from the New World – the United States, South Africa, Australia – lean more toward bold, fruit-forward flavors with lots of structure. Even if you don’t know the specific grape or producer, a general sense of how a region produces wine will give you some clues.
Know What You Like and Own It
If you have a preference for Italian Chianti or California Chardonnay, check if those wines are available. Restaurants often group similar types of wines together, so you may find several wines made from the same varietal or from the same region that sound intriguing.
If you don’t see any wines you’re familiar with, ask your server or bartender if there’s anything not listed. They may have bottles on hand that have been replaced by new arrivals, or are kept separate to maintain a more manageable wine list.
Ask for a Taste
If the wine you’re interested in is offered by the glass, ask your sever or bartender for a taste. This will save you from having to commit before knowing whether or not you and the wine are a match.
Ask for Advice
If you know what you like and own it (see above), share that preference with your bartender, server, or sommelier. Describe the style of wine you prefer (dry, semi-dry, bold, fruity, mineral) or just give an example of a bottle you’ve enjoyed (Australian Shiraz, Italian Pinot Grigio, Oregon Pinot Noir), and ask if they can recommend something similar.
Also give them an idea of how much you’d like to spend on a bottle. Don’t be shy about price. A strong wine list will have great options at every price point.
If you want to explore new wines, ask to speak with the restaurant’s beverage manager or sommelier. Since it’s likely they put together the wine list, they should know it better than anyone else and be able to recommend wines that otherwise might not have caught your eye.
By the Glass or by the Bottle?
If there’s a chance you’ll want more than one glass of wine, or you’re ordering for a group, it’s almost always more cost effective to buy a bottle. If you’re concerned about not finishing the bottle (yes, this does happen!), many states will allow you to cork the bottle and take home what you don’t drink in the restaurant.
This is not to say that wine by the glass isn’t a wise choice. Not only can you taste before you commit, going by the glass also gives you the freedom to try a variety of different wines. If you’re part of a group and not everyone can agree on what to drink, it also lets everyone choose what they want. That’s a wine-win.
Many restaurants will let you bring your own wine to enjoy for the cost of a corkage fee, as long as your bottle is not already on the wine list. Corkage fees tend to range from $15-$25, depending on the restaurant, but call ahead to be sure.
If you’re a superstar diner, offer your server or bartender a taste of your bottle. In some cities, such as Philadelphia, bringing your own bottle (BYOB) is common, due to the prohibitive requirements for restaurants to obtain a liquor license.
Relax and Enjoy
Finally, remember that wine can be for anyone! You don’t need to be able to pronounce a wine or know exactly where it comes from in order to enjoy its pleasures. And the more wines you taste, the more you’ll know what you like and don’t like. That’s another wine-win.