Wine 101 – Ordering Wine at a Restaurant

Ordering the food was easy. Then, gasp, it’s time to pick the wine. Everyone turns to the smartest person at the table. The hot potato lands on your lap. “You do it.” You place the order. The wine arrives. You’re in the spotlight. Yikes.

What happens next: the wine presentation. Why do they bring you the bottle and pour you a sample? A waiter or sommelier (wine director) presents you with a bottle of wine so that you can verify that it is, in fact, what you ordered.  Check. Then, he or she pours you a sample so that you see, smell and taste if is faulty. Hmmm?

How do you survive the wine presentation at a restaurant? Trust yourself. You can easily tell when food smells or tastes bad. Look for similar clues in wines. Defective wines look brown or cloudy. They smell and taste moldy, musty, burnt or like vinegar. If in doubt, ask the waiter or sommelier to examine the wine before it is served to the rest of table. At a restaurant with a focused wine program or a massive wine list, the sommelier is the person who has purchased the wine and knows what it is supposed to taste like.

What should you order when you’re going out with your spouse or friend and want to try something new?  Try the same wine that you like from a different wine region. You could branch out from a California Pinot Noir to an Oregon or New Zealand Pinot Noir. Or, you could try a new wine with similar acidity or body weight (light, medium or full) to wines you normally drink. For example, if you like Sauvignon Blanc, try a Vouvray  (Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, France) or Albariño (from northwest Spain). If you would like to try a floral, spicy, earthy, minerally, or oaked (rich) wine, don’t be intimidated to ask for a recommendation.

Splitting the tab with friends and family? What do you order? Look for a good value wine rather than a name wine. Instead of matching the wine to the food, try to find something that everyone will like. Good value wines often come from wine regions that most people do not know well. Be forthcoming as possible with the waiter about your price range. Be direct: “We’d like a red wine for about $45. Could you point out something that we haven’t heard of?”

What should you order when entertaining clients? A good strategy is to point to a particular wine on the wine list within your price range and ask the sommelier or waiter for “something like this that could go well with a range of foods.” The waiter or sommelier will understand that you are hinting at the price range. With a large group of people, pick both a red and a white and order seconds of the table’s favorite wine as that bottle empties. Or, pre-empt: Telephone in advance to discuss the wine list and your needs. If it’s a very special occasion, ask the restaurant to pre-set the glasses at the table, chill the wine, or decant it in advance. But, if you are pressed for time and want to make a quick choice to have more client talk time, U.S. wines are usually safer choices than European wines because they are meant to be drunk young and have less vintage variation.

Can you bring your own wine to a restaurant? You can BYOB under certain circumstances. Call ahead to find out if the restaurant allows it,  then determine the charge for corkage (removing the cork from your bottle and serving it you). Corkage is always better received when you call ahead and try to bring something that the restaurant does not already offer on its menu.

Why do restaurants mark up wines? The mark-up reflects purchasing expertise, storage costs and service. You are paying for an expert to buy good wine, regardless of the price. You are paying for the overhead cost of keeping an inventory of wine stored at the right temperature. You are also paying for individual help in pointing out good values, pairing wine with the food that you ordered, seeing that the wine is served at the right temperature and sequence, and making sure that your dining experience is wonderful.

Do you have to tip the sommelier? If your wine service was excellent and it really contributed something extra to your meal, you could place $10-$20 or a 10% extra tip directly into the hands of the sommelier as you leave the restaurant. Even if the tip is clearly intended for the sommelier, when the waiter picks it up from the table there could be a war. At a four star restaurant, you could offer a generous taste of the wine that you ordered to the sommelier or waiter as a way of thanking them for their service.

 

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