Alright, admit it: Despite how much you think you know about wine, you’ve invariably found yourself in an unfamiliar restaurant with a daunting binder of wines in front of you, and recognized not a single bottle. It’s O.K., we’ve all been there. This is a precarious situation for anyone, but it becomes even more dicey if you let your “wine ego” get in the way of proper selection. Best to leave that ego with coat-check, and get some help along the way.
There’s mixture of art and science that goes into getting the most out of a given wine list, but the very first step is to seek out a restaurant with an interesting, eclectic list. This is not always feasible, and the majority of the time, your plans will determine the wine list rather than the other way around, but at the very least you should develop a mental list of restaurants in your hometown that fits this bill.
Once you’re seated and handed the wine list, though, the dance has begun. The next thing to remember? Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s almost certain that the sommelier (or an informed waiter) knows more about his wine list than you do. Maybe you have a vertical of that one Burgundy at home and are an expert on that producer—but in that case, do you really want to pay restaurant markup for something you already have? Also be sure to ask the sommelier specific questions about the wines, like their style and what they pair well with, as well as for personal recommendations.
Depending on your outing, your best bet for a starter (or lunch) wine just might be a “by the glass” offering, but beware: More often than not, these are their primary money-makers and thus are stretched to the brink in terms of cost and time. If you recognize a mediocre wine that you know is otherwise $10 per bottle being sold for $8 per glass, be wary. Beyond that, though, always ask for a taste of the wine beforehand, and do not be afraid to ask them to open a fresh bottle. By-the-glass wines are routinely left open for a day or two; the constant pouring (and resultant sloshing) of the bottle means that they’re often severely oxidized and stale when they hit your glass. There is no shame in acknowledging this and requesting a new bottle!
Now you’re into the meat of the selections. The first rule is simple: Don’t order the second-least expensive bottle on the menu. Typically, restaurateurs know that most people will psychologically gravitate towards the cheaper end of the list, but then take a step away from that extreme low-end to make sure they don’t look like a cheapskate in front of their date/friends/boss/etc. As such, this spot on the list (especially smaller, sparser lists) is often unofficially reserved for wines that they’re either trying to unload, or are marked up beyond normal ranges. While this is not always the case, it’s prudent to be wary of this place on this list.
The same goes for the most expensive end of the list. Too often, wine lists will leap up in price on the last two or three wines, mainly to appease the occasional day-trader show-off. This end of the list isn’t necessarily bad, but more often than not, you’re paying for name recognition rather than actual quality. In terms of value, big names are a no-no.
By this point in the evening, hopefully your sommelier (or knowledgable waiter) has gotten the hint: You’ve taken control of your wine fate tonight. Yet, there’s one thing that you haven’t yet conquered—pairing the perfect wine with your entrée. While this is a great time to rely on your sommelier, the unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of restaurants do not provide such luxuries as an all-knowing wine master. If that’s the case, now would be the time to conjure up some sage pairing advice.
While whole books have been written on the subject of pairing wine with food, the thing that you need to do (right now) is homework. You should have a veritable arsenal of regions and grape varietals that you know you like from personal experience, and that play well with certain foods. Obvious examples are Bordeaux with steak or Muscadet with oysters, but other subtle, more personalized pairings are important to stash away for nights like this.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to branch out beyond your safe zone. Too many people who drink nothing but Chardonnay are astounded when they try Chenin Blanc with herbed trout or old vine Chilean Carmenere with a simple steak. You should approach every dinner out as an opportunity.
Just don’t get taken for a ride in the process.
Evan Williams is a co-founder of The Wine Guild of Charlottesville. Find out more at wineguildcville.com.