An evening out for dinner should be fun, not frustrating. Ordering wine in a restaurant can be daunting at best at times, but it doesn’t need to be. Here are some thoughts about conquering it without great stress.
Think about what you might want to drink: Many restaurants now have their wine list on their website along with their menu, or a sample menu. Reviewing this before you arrive can give you a head start on selecting wine for your meal. Generally restaurants will have a house wine, premium wines by the glass, a standard wine list and, occasionally, a reserve wine list. Unless you are in Europe, DO NOT ORDER THE HOUSE WINE. These wines are the cheapest and generally the most profitable for the restaurant. If you want to experiment and you do not plan on having more than three glasses of the same wine, premium wine by the glass can be an interesting way to try something new. Consider how many people are dining and what they are considering ordering. A good general rule is a half bottle of wine per person for an evening. Often this means one bottle of red and one of white.
Study the wine list: Wine lists are sometimes huge, leather bound tomes. Do not be intimated by this. These have been around a while and sometimes contain hidden treasures. Look for a wine by a great producer in a lesser year, or one by a lesser producer in a great year. More often now, wine lists are laser printed on good card stock and are updated and revised often. These lists are usually more accurate. Information on the wine list should include the name of the wine, the vintage, possibly tasting notes and occasionally pairing suggestions. Wine lists are organized by varietal, (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, etc.) or by region, (California, France, Italy, etc.).
Discussing/choosing the wine: At this point, you may be able to narrow your choices down to two or three wines in your price range. Be sure to decide how much you want to spend, but be somewhat flexible. Next ask your server or the sommelier to help you choose from your short list. If you are unable to narrow the list to several choices, describe what type of wine you like to the sommelier and ask for recommendations in your price range. Do not be afraid to indicate how much you want to spend. If the restaurant specializes in a particular type of wine, it is a good idea to select from that genre.
Handling the presentation of the wine: First, examine the bottle when it is presented to you. Make sure that it is the wine and the vintage you have ordered. Vintages often change, and this change is not always reflected on the wine list. With younger, less expensive wines, this is generally not a huge issue. Next the server will remove the cork and present it to you. DO NOT SNIFF THE CORK; you will look foolish and it accomplishes nothing. Check the cork to see if it is either too dry or too wet. Either case could mean that the wine is not good. Then the server will pour a small amount for you to taste. Smell the wine, swirl it lightly in the glass and taste it. Take your time!!! If it smells or tastes like wet wood, wet cardboard or vinegar, tell the server the wine is not good. If a white wine has turned cidery brown, or if a red wine is brown or cloudy, it is probably not good. If you are unsure about the wine, allow someone else at the table, or the server or sommelier to taste it. This is the time to address the issue. Waiting until you have finished half of the bottle is not the time to remedy the issue. If the wine is good, indicate your approval, and the server will pour the wine. If the wine is very young, or old enough to have sediment, you should consider asking your server to decant the wine before pouring it.
Tipping on wine/some thoughts: Most people leave a 15 to 20 % tip at restaurants. Of course, this amount should always depend on the service. The question arises, what to tip if the bill includes an expensive bottle of wine. It is not unusual to discount the tip in this case. If the sommelier has been particularly helpful in choosing a special bottle, or serving a special bottle, many people will give him/her a separate cash tip and a special word of thanks. If you have chosen an expensive or rare bottle, it is also acceptable to offer a taste to the sommelier.
As we have discussed previously, wine is to be enjoyed! Above all else, have a great evening!
Written by Pat Daniel. Permission to publish by Columbus & the Valley Magazine.