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At any restaurant, ordering wine from a wine list might seem daunting and confusing – and that’s especially the case if the sommelier is handing you a wine menu that includes hundreds, if not thousands, of different wines. Making things even more complex is the fact that you might be paying as much as $50 for a bottle of wine from a wine region you may have a hard time even pronouncing. With that in mind, here’s a quick, easy way to simplify the process of ordering wine in a restaurant.
While it’s possible to read a wine list just like you read a book (i.e. start on page one and read through each page in linear order), it’s far simpler to head to a specific section of the wine list and make your selection from a much smaller set of wines. Instead of trying to choose between hundreds of wines, you will be able to select from just a fraction of that number – and thereby reduce the time it takes to find the right wine.
For example, say that the restaurant wine list is organized by geographic region, and there is a separate section of the wine list for California wines, French wines, Italian wines and Australian wines. That simplifies matters considerably, because all that you have to do is head to a particular section, and then further focus your search on wines from a particular wine region (or sub-region). For example, if you enjoy California wines, then it’s simply a matter of deciding whether you want to focus on Napa, Sonoma or another region (such as Paso Robles or Santa Cruz Mountains) within California.
There is a very simple rule used by many diners – if you are ordering fish or a light chicken meal, you can order white wine, and if you are ordering roasted or grilled meats, you can order red wine. For example, if you’re at a steak restaurant and plan on ordering steak, it’s almost a certainty that you will be ordering a big, bold red like a Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux. For some of their more challenging menu selections, restaurants will often suggest a food-wine pairing, right within the description of the food item.
As a general rule of thumb, you can’t go wrong with the advice to pair food from a particular region with wine from that region. Thus, if you are ordering plates of Spanish tapas, the natural go-to wine is a red wine from Rioja. If you are ordering pasta and red sauce at an Italian restaurant, the natural choice is a red wine from Tuscany.
It can also be helpful to think in terms of wines that “go with anything.” For example, sommeliers are always able to recommend white and red wines that would complement a broad range of dishes – such as when you’re dining with a group, and everybody is ordering something different. White wines that pair well with most dishes include Riesling, Albarino and Chardonnay. Red wines that pair well with most dishes include Pinot Noir and Italian reds such as Barbera and Chianti.
Many people mistakenly assume that “value” is a code word for “cheap.” But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s actually more likely that higher-priced wines on a wine list are a better value than the lower-priced wines. That’s because, even with price markups of 200-300% over retail, there is a limit to what restaurants can charge for a bottle of wine and expect customers to buy. Thus, they will often forgo some of the price markups on older, more expensive, or rare wines, mostly in an effort to entice diners to order them.
So how do you go about spotting value on a wine list? One favourite tactic is to look for a popular grape varietal from an unexpected place. Thus, the most obvious place to look for Pinot Noir on a wine menu is a place like California, Oregon or Burgundy. So if you spot a Pinot Noir from a place like Germany, there’s a good chance that you are getting relative value on that bottle of wine.
The same type of thinking applies to wine regions in general. There are some high-end, prestigious or famous wine regions in the world – and then there is everywhere else. Restaurants know that their most popular wines are going to be from places like California, France and Italy – so it’s only natural that you will be getting extra value if you are ordering wine from Portugal, New Zealand or South Africa. And even with the big wine-producing nations (i.e. France or Italy), it’s possible to get extra value for your wine selection by choosing a less popular “value” region. For example, within France, you will get more bang for your buck if you order wine from Alsace or (better yet) Languedoc-Roussillon. Within Italy, you will get more bang for your buck if you order a wine from Puglia, Campania, Sardinia or Sicily. And, instead of ordering a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, you are ensured of getting much greater value if you order a Cab from Washington State.
One tip to keep in mind is to always pass on the “second cheapest” bottle on the wine list. This is a classic tactic that restaurants use to offload wines that they are having trouble selling (or that may be piling up in storage as a result of over-ordering). It’s based on human psychology – people don’t want to order the cheapest item on the menu, so they naturally gravitate to the “second cheapest” item. While that item might be priced low in absolute terms, it is not priced low in relative terms, meaning that the price markup on that wine is going to be greater than the price markups for the wines around it on the wine list.
Before you go to a restaurant, have a clear idea of what type of wine you enjoy drinking. This will help guide you in your wine selection. Common types of wines that restaurant patrons ask for include “light and fruity” white wines and “bold” or “dark and earthy” red wines. At the very least, knowing whether you prefer a sweet or dry wine can help guide your selection, as can the decision of whether you want a light-bodied or full-bodied wine. During certain seasons of the year, your decision might already be made for you – it’s most common to order light-bodied wines during the summer and full-bodied wines during the winter.
Most restaurants will have a bottle list and a by the glass list. Wines listed on the by the glass list are typically those that are most popular, and that the restaurant feels most comfortable selling. That makes sense, right? Once a restaurant has opened up a bottle of wine, it needs to sell as many glasses of wine from that bottle as it can within the shortest possible period of time. So it makes sense that the wines sold by the glass also have the fastest “velocity” in terms of sales.
For that reason, it’s possible to use the by-the-glass wine list as a proxy to the most popular wines. These are not necessarily the wines offering the best value, but they are going to be crowd pleasers. If you are out with a group of people, you may feel pressure to order a wine that everybody will enjoy, and that’s why it’s a natural move to order a full bottle of any wine offered by the glass.
Within the popular mainstream, it might seem as though there is a “perfect” wine to order for every occasion. Food and wine magazines, for example, often rhapsodize over the “perfect” pairing for a new culinary creation. And sommeliers and wine critics perpetuate this myth. In fact, they have even decided that there is a perfect wine glass to enjoy every wine with, complicating matters even more.
But stop with all this nonsense – the only “right” wine to order is one that you want to order. And restaurants seem to be getting the clue. For example, they are scaling down and paring down their wine lists, recognizing that “less is more.” They are making their wine menus more customer-centric in other ways, too. For example, instead of organizing wine lists by geographic region and presenting a wine list as a geographic atlas, they are organizing wines by “style” and “theme.” For example, it’s no longer uncommon to see categories like “steakhouse reds” when you go out to eat. This eliminates any confusion whatsoever about the best pairing – if you are ordering steak, you can order any of these steakhouse reds, and you will be just fine.
So don’t be intimidated the next time it’s your turn to order the wine for a group. Using the few basic rules outlined above, you will be in a very good position to order a wine that you will enjoy drinking, and that you are getting real value on as an affordably priced wine.