Viticulture – the study of the art and science of grape-growing – is such a popular hobby these days. More and more individuals have dedicated themselves to studying the art of winemaking and wine-drinking and the result has been a much more educated crowd of diners at today’s restaurants. These wine lovers, well-versed in the basics of wine, know what they want to drink with their dinner and often select particular restaurants specifically for their prolific wine list.
However, ordering wine in a restaurant is still intimidating to some folks, especially when you’re confronted with a long wine list at a rather snooty restaurant where it seems everyone knows what they’re ordering but you. Do you pick the cheapest bottle or the most expensive? Should it be a red or white with your entrée? Should you purchase a glass or an entire bottle?
It’s good to have the answers to these questions in your head when confronted by a cocky server or snotty wine sommelier, so a little education on the basics of wine and what to choose when you’re dining out can go a long way.
For most diners, the price of a bottle of wine is a major consideration when faced with the decision of what to order. If you’re like most people, your eyes automatically shift to the right side of each line where the price is stated. Initially, the prices might shock you but you’ll usually find that most restaurants offer wines in all price ranges.
Your gut reaction might be to decide what color wine you want – red or white – and then go for the cheapest bottle. Most wine experts and those with insider information will tell you that this isn’t your best bet. Restaurants have a tendency to have the highest mark-ups on the least expensive bottles of wine. The same is often true for the most expensive vintages. That’s why most wine guides suggest you choose something in the middle of the price range. For example, if bottles range from $20 to $60, look for something that costs about $40. This will have the lowest markup and you’re also likely to get a good-tasting wine in this mid range.
House wines usually have a steep markup as well and you’ll also find that this is the wine most often pushed by the server or wine steward. So, it may not be a great deal by the bottle even though it’s an easy order and you’ll only need to choose white or red, nothing more specific. Think twice before you order it, especially if it’s not your favorite type of wine.
How about ordering by the glass? If you’re sure you’re having only one serving – perhaps before the theater or for some other similar occasion – then go ahead and order a glass. Consider purchasing the house wine as it probably moves quickly and it’s less likely that the bottle has been sitting around for a while. If more than one person at your table is drinking, go for the entire bottle as you’ll save money in the long run and probably get a better tasting product.
Choosing Red or White
If you’ve had any wine drinking experience at all, you probably know which dishes should be accompanied by white wine and which by red. Whites are generally paired with lighter foods like chicken or salads while steak demands a hearty red wine. Lighter reds can be used with everything in between such as veal or game meat.
But which red or white do you choose? Some individuals already know their own preferences but should also consider those of the rest of the party. It may be necessary to order at least 2 bottles of different types to accommodate everyone.
In North America, most wine experts say the best white wines are often not the pricey aged chardonnays or cabernets but the younger Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc varietals. Good reds include Zinfandel (not the pink variety) and Syrah (Shiraz in Australia). A Pinot Noir from Oregon or Central California is also a desirable red and is often not too costly
If you seek an international wine, try selecting one that pairs with food from the same region – like a good hearty Chianti with Italian tomato sauce-topped specialties and a Rioja from Spain for Spanish or Mexican food.
When the Wine Arrives
Though a lot of people are certainly intimidated when it comes to making a wine choice, those same people are probably mortified when the wine is set in front of them on the table. “What should they do next?” they wonder.
Wine experts say the next steps shouldn’t be too complicated. Most likely, you’ll receive the cork first. Some wine aficionados will tell you to just ignore it – the cork tells you nothing. Others believe you can smell a bad cork. But unless you’re well versed in detecting bad wine smells, skip the cork sniffing. Instead, allow the server or steward to pour a small amount in your glass. Check for clarity and be sure the wine doesn’t look cloudy. (Don’t worry about miniscule pieces of cork or small crystals, common in some white wines.) If it’s cloudy, send it back.
Next, swirl it lightly and sniff it while it’s moving. Does it smell like wet cardboard, vinegar, or some other unpleasant fragrance? If so, send it back immediately. A good restaurant shouldn’t argue with you about refusing the wine. If it passes the sniff test, taste it. If it tastes bad, send it back. If it’s simply not to your liking, you really shouldn’t try to return it. This just might be a good lesson on what you prefer and what you don’t and you’ll know not to order it again.
If you’re pleased overall, just nod to the server and let him know that all is well. At that point, he’ll decant the wine if necessary and serve you and your guests.
Using the Sommelier
Ordering wine in a restaurant might put you face to face with the establishment’s sommelier. Many people become panic-stricken when the sommelier approaches their table. That’s because we picture him/her as a bastion of wine knowledge and are afraid to order the wrong thing. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of that knowledge. That’s why he’s part of the staff. Simply let him know whether you prefer white or red (or both), point to a price on the menu and tell him discreetly that this is your price range, then allow him to make appropriate suggestions. The result of using a sommelier is usually a great bottle of wine.