Wine is often perceived as a stuffy, fussy thing, but it doesn’t have to be. Sure, different flavors may go better with different foods, but in the end everyone’s palate is different, and there’s no reason you need to be a sommelier-in-training to order a decent wine with your meal. It’s easier than you think, and we sat down with a wine expert and educator to come up with some tricks you can take with you to the restaurant.
Ordering a bottle of wine at a restaurant can be a tricky affair, especially if you’re on a date or you’re ordering with a group of people and they all turn to you for advice. You can always use the Adam Pash technique, described by Kevin Purdy here, and order a “spicy red” to go along with your meal or sip at a small gathering—a technique that I can completely vouch for. Alternatively, you can always just ask the sommelier if they have a preferred wine selection that goes well with the meal you’re ordering—that works too.
Still, in between bluffing and just coming out and asking, here are some suggestions from Wine.com Director of Education and Content Gwendolyn Osborn (basically their in-house sommelier, though actually even more wine-geeky as she holds the Diploma level with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET).) that will help you find something tasty.
- Do Your Homework. If this event is serious business, you may want to do a little research before you even go to the restaurant. Gwendolyn notes that the menus of most restaurants are online and available from your smartphone these days, as are the wine lists. Look it up before you go. You don’t even have to pick out something specific to order, but looking at the wine list and the menu in advance will help you get a feel for what’s available, and you can even come up with a few ideas or choices before you arrive at the restaurant. Photo by Chris Cohen.
- Don’t Hesitate to Ask Questions. Gwendolyn notes, “Sommeliers and wine stewards are there to help! They are proud of their lists and have spent lots of time putting them together. That said, you don’t want to ask ‘what wine should I order,’ you want to give some guidelines. Ask about a style of wine such as ‘I like light and crisp whites, what do you recommend.’ Or, ‘I love Cabernet Sauvignon, but would love to try something new in a similar style.’” She also suggests that you point out what you’re planning to order, and ask their opinion based on that, like we mentioned above. Giving the sommelier or in-house wine expert a feel for what you’re looking for will take the pressure off of them to come up with a suggestion out of nowhere, and ups the chance you’ll get a wine you’ll enjoy.
- Send Your Sommelier a Subtle Message. If you’re worried about losing control over the price of the wine if you leave everything up to the sommelier or expert, Gwendolyn suggests sending them a subtle message: “Hold up the menu and say you’re ‘looking for a bottle similar to this one’ and point to the price rather than the wine. Sneaky, right? The sommelier should pick up on that signal and recommend wines in that price range. Note the word ‘should.’” It’s by no means a surefire approach, but it’s not a bad idea if you want a suggestion but you want to stick to a price range without saying it out loud. At the same time, There’s nothing wrong with mentioning a price range. If it’s the sommelier you’re concerned about, don’t worry.
- Order By the Glass, and Try Different Wines. Let your server or the sommelier know that you’re interested in trying different wines to see what you like, and order by the glass so you don’t break the bank on several bottles. Feel free to try a glass of one wine, and then move on to another, or another if something catches your eye. In the best case, your sommelier may have a number of suggestions that work with the food you’re eating, and can help you pick a couple of options to try over the course of your meal. You get different flavors with every glass, and you don’t spend a mint to try new things.
- Pick an Old Standby. If you know a particular varietal that you enjoy, ask the sommelier if it’ll go well with the meal. If you don’t have a sommelier or wine expert and your server is indifferent, order it, conventions be damned. Again, your taste buds are what’s important here, so go with what you like. Gwendolyn has a few suggestions, “Some wines are universally food-friendly. One that is, and that is constantly underrated for pairing with food, is sparkling wine. The bright acidity is such a great match with a variety of foods. Another go-to in the food-wine pairing world is Pinot Noir. Ripe fruit, lovely acidity, lighter body… all these attributes make it one of those wines to please those ordering the fish and those ordering the steak.”
- Try To Take Something from The Experience. The best way to be more confident about wine, and enjoy wine with any meal (or by itself as a great beverage) is to try new things and expand your palate. Sometimes the best way to not look like you’re clueless when trying something new is to give up, push past your anxiety, and let yourself look clueless until you get your bearings or learn enough to feel confident and competent. Try new blends and varietals, find out what you really like. Go to wine tastings or festivals in your area and talk to the people who make and distribute the wine. You’ll find that even in a short time, you’ll learn what you like and dislike, and be able to pick up smells and flavors you didn’t know were there before. Photo by Jeff Kubina.
Wine has an unfortunate reputation for being fussy and pretentious, and while it certainly can be, that’s more often the fault of the people drinking than the beverage itself. There’s no reason to let an implied stuffiness around different blends, bottles, and varietals stop you from enjoying what can be a delicious part of a great meal. All it takes is a little homework, a little bravery, and good communication.
Are you a wine fan? What are your go-to selections from the wine list? Share your favorites—and your wine ordering tips—in the comments below.
Gwendolyn Osborn is the Director of Education and Content and resident wine expert for Wine.com. You can find her Wine.com’s Facebook Page and their @wine_com Twitter feed. She offered her expertise for this story, and we thank her.
Title photo by Umbria Lovers.