Ordering Wine at a Restaurant
By Jimmy Quaile, Certified Sommelier
No matter if the wine list is a single page or a leather bound book, ordering wine at a restaurant shouldn’t be intimidating at all…in fact, it can be fun!
First, know that a bottle has five 5-ounce glasses in it and should serve three people (ok, not if I am one of those three, but I’ll continue).
Ask around the table who is drinking wine. If one person is more enthusiastic about it than the others, ask if they would like to pick a bottle for the table…unless you want to, in which case order away!
Check out how the list is organized. Some are by country, some are by varietal (the name of the grape) and some are categorized by the ‘body’ of the wine (light, medium or full).
Ask if anyone has favorites (Red or White wine? Pinot Noir or Cabernet? Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio? French or Italian?). If it’s just you and your date, you might ask what (s)he is ordering for dinner and suggest a wine that will go with the meal. I always think a sparkling wine makes a nice intro to the meal.
You can hold off ordering your wine for the meal until everyone orders. If you are at a fancy-shmancy place there could be a sommelier, YAY! He is not the stodgy wine snob that you think. In fact, he wants nothing more than to help you pick a wine that you love at the price you want to spend so that you come back. Tell him what you’re thinking and possibly what you’re ordering for your meal. “Do you have any recommendations?” Tell him what you’d like to spend – it is appropriate and doesn’t have to be awkward. You can use terms like “mid-range” or “under $60,” etc. If you are celebrating a promotion, engagement or something big, by all means tell him. My favorite is to ask what he has tried lately that might be “under the radar.” Those wines, like a Petite Syrah, Aglianico or some odd Rosé can be great and not exceed your budget. Somms love recommending the odd ones.
Ok, you’ve decided. He brings and shows you the bottle. A quick check that it’s the wine AND VINTAGE you chose is all that’s needed. Give a nod and
continue enjoying your guests. He will then open the bottle and present you the cork. Don’t make a big deal of it by waving it under your nose for a week, just squeeze it to make sure it’s not crumbling in your hand. That would tell you the wine was badly stored. It STILL might be ok, but is worth noting. He’ll then pour a small 2-ounce sample for you to taste. Have a sip, and if the wine is to your liking, give another nod and say, “That’s great, thank you.”
How ’bout if the wine IS bad??!! What if the wine smells and tastes like wet cardboard or the cork…or like NOTHING! This is rare. So rare that it might only happen once or twice in your life. But if it does, kindly ask the Somm or server to take a taste. He will agree if it’s bad (he may even agree if it’s not!). He will then offer you another bottle, or you could choose your second choice…the one you almost ordered.
Wine does make the meal. Don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure because you think you’ll do or ask something wrong.