For some, there are few things that inspire more fear and trepidation than ordering wine off of the wine list at a restaurant. Often in several different languages, these lists can be incredibly comprehensive, or just list a wine and a price. With bottles ranging from a few bucks to (in some cases) thousands of dollars, a fair amount of thought should be dedicated to what wine(s) grace your table for the meal.
We asked our resident Sommelier, Peter, to give us his 5 tips on how to order a bottle of wine at your favorite restaurant.
Tip #1 : Trust your Server
If you are going somewhere with a list of at least 20 bottles, chances are that the staff has had some training on wine. Depending on the type of restaurant, this could range from simple food pairings to an in-depth understanding of the wines and culture of a growing region. Beyond that, giving recommendations on food and wine is quite literally their job. If they have been in service for any reasonable period of time, they will most likely have picked up a few tips on their restaurant’s list.
Bonus Tip: You can gauge your servers knowledge by asking them about their favorite bottle that the restaurant sells. Based on their confidence in speaking about wine, you will get a better understanding of how much they know and if their opinion is trustworthy.
Tip #2 : Be Upfront about how much you are Looking to Spend
If you are looking for a recommendation from your server, one of the best ways to go about it is: “I’ll be having the tasty tidbits and my date will be having the delicious morsels. We are looking for a recommendation on a bottle under 50 bucks to pair with our morsels and tidbits. What do you think would work?” With those few lines, you have increased your likelihood of enjoying your meal drastically.
Odds are that your server will hit you with something in the $45 to $55 price range. If you want to actually spend under $50, lowball your initial offer and be willing to go up. Keep in mind, you tip off of the bill, so your server’s income is based on their ability to sell while keeping you happy.
Tip #3 : Ignore the ‘Classic’ Regions
While the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa, and Barolo are spectacular, restaurant markup is a well-known fact. Often in the range of 300%, those bottles should be reserved for restaurants that offer corkage – allow you to bring bottles of wine from home to drink at the establishment for a fee. That way, you can buy them from your local wine shop at a much more reasonable 20-40% markup.
Restaurant wine lists can have wonderful examples from all reaches of the world. Especially when eating somewhere with regionally focused cuisine, these lists can be very inclusive and open you up to wines you never knew existed. Very often, wines from the smaller, lesser-known provinces will not carry the extra price tag associated with the expensive land of big-name wine regions.
Tip #4: Know When to Send Back Wine
While wines can be negatively impacted by a variety of outside factors, the main thing to be looking for when your server pours you that initial little splash is Cork Taint. Cork Taint is commonly misunderstood, but once you have smelled it, you will never forget it. It is caused by a chemical called trichloroanisole, or TCA. Wines infected with TCA are said to be ‘Corked.’
TCA infects wood and can come from corks, barrels, wineries, or cooperages. Its effects change over time, as TCA does not infect the wine all at once. At onset, it will reduce aromatic intensity and mute flavor. After it has had time to fester, Cork Taint will make your wine taste and smell like old cardboard sitting in a wet concrete basement. TCA can infect white, red, rosé, and sparkling wine, and is thought to be present in 3% of the wines produced worldwide. Wines sealed with a screw cap or synthetic cork are not safe from TCA.
If you ever get a wine that smells like old cardboard, certainly send it back. The restaurant will definitely not charge you for the bottle. Feel free to order another of the same bottle from the cellar. Generally speaking, wines infected with cork taint don’t make it out of the winery in large batches. Only a few, irregular bottles will suffer from it.
Unless your server seriously misrepresented a bottle you ordered, it is not acceptable to send a bottle back just because you don’t like it. While quality can be degraded through improper handing with too much light, heat, or temperature fluctuation, these issues will generally cause entire cases of wine to spoil at a time. Most restaurants and distributors keep careful controls on such things as they don’t want to lose their precious product.
Tip #5 : Pair the Wine with your Food
If you open a wine list and you don’t know where to begin, put that list back down and open up the menu. There are several easy tips to pairing wine with food that will make your next wine selection a breeze.
- What grows together goes together – This is the oldest one in the book. If the Italians have been having Sangiovese with lamb for 1000 years, there is probably something to it, right?
- Complete the Flavor Pentagon – There are 5 basic tastes that the human palate can experience. They are: Sweet, Salty, Sour, Bitter, and Umami. Often times, pairing wines which have flavors your food does not will complement the dish and make for an excellent pairing.
- Use matching ‘weight’ – If you have a massive dish in mind, pair it with a big wine. Steak and Cabernet Sauvignon is the most classic example of this type of pairing. Other great, weighted pairings include Albariño and shellfish, and Pinot Noir or Chardonnay with roast chicken.
With these five easy tips, you will be ordering like a pro in no time. Feel free to lean on your service staff a bit more if you are just getting into wine. The more you taste, the more knowledgeable you will become. This will ultimately increase your confidence as you discuss and order wine in the future, so get out there and pop some bottles!