- First and foremost: Don’t become intimidated or frustrated with the wine list. Remember it is a harmless piece of paper. Take a minute to figure out its structure or layout and then break it down into pieces. The ordering of a glass of wine or bottle is simply a process of elimination.
- Remember what you know about wine and what your preferences are. Regardless of what menu selection you intend to make, there is nothing wrong with ordering a wine based solely on your personal preference or prior experience. It is easy to locate a wine you have had before and go up and down the flavor profile, depending on your menu selection. The challenge is to get the food and the wine to complement each other.
- Here are the simple questions to ask before tackling the list:
A) Do I want a glass of wine or a bottle? Remember my section on pricing. It may be less expensive for you to buy a bottle of wine if several members of your group are having wine.
B) Wine specials are a good way to get to try wines at lower prices. But be a little cautious and ask your server about the wines that are on special. Try and ascertain whether the wines are on special because the restaurant has lots of inventory and they want to get rid of it because it isn’t selling well. The reason it isn’t selling just might be it isn’t a very good wine.
C) Think about the type of food you enjoy and the type of wine you have had with this food in the past. Naturally, you want your wine to pair well with your food. If you are a wine rookie, like most of us, here are some old and tested rules of thumb I would suggest when selecting wine:
a) White wines go with lighter foods and white meats.
b) Red wines go with red meat or heavy sauces.
c) Lighter reds or sweet whites go with desserts.
d) Using these rules of thumb you might try selecting a wine from the same region as your food choice. For example: Italian wines with Italian dishes or Spanish wines with Mexican or Spanish dishes, and so on.
4. What wines do you like? Red or white? Making this decision will eliminate half of the list right away. Be sure and ask your guests who prefers red and who prefers white, and also what food they plan to order. This will guide you on what wine to order. If the answer is both light and heavy foods, I suggest you order both a red and a white. In this example, I would suggest ordering a Sauvignon Blanc for the white as it is a very versatile wine and will pair well with lots of different foods. For the red you can consider a middle-of- the-road red, in terms of flavor profile, such as a Merlot or Pinot Noir. If everyone is eating steaks, obviously a Cabernet Sauvignon is the best wine to select.
5. Another important decision is budget. I think you should decide this before you even review the list. If your budget is $50 or less, it is quite easy to skip over a good portion of the wine list. I might add that I think it is great fun to look at the list and find the most expensive bottles (not to buy). I have gone over lists that have had bottles priced at $6,000 to $10,000 each. And I always ask myself: “who is buying this wine?” Remember my pricing remarks and select accordingly.
6) Don’t be shy about asking for your server’s recommendation on wine. A good tip is to point to a wine on the wine list that is in your desired price range and ask about it. This will give the server an idea of your general price range. You do need to be aware that a lot of the restaurants’ staffs (due to turn over and training schedules) may not be particular knowledgeable of the wines on their lists. You may want to ask a few general questions and if the answers are not helpful, ask your server if you might speak to the most knowledgeable person in the restaurant about the wine list. Most servers will seek advice if they need to or if you ask questions beyond their wine knowledge level.
One of the questions I always ask of my server, if I am not familiar with a wine or its vintage, is “have you ever tasted this wine?” If the answer is “no,” it’s an easy segue into your next question which should be: “Do you know anyone else on the staff who has tasted it and could speak to me?” Frankly it always amazes me when I get a “no” answer. How can a server be expected to assist or make a personal recommendation to you if they have never tasted the wines? It seems unfair to put the server in the position where they can’t perform the most important task they have – “assisting the customer.” Perhaps it says something about the restaurant’s wine program.
Some fine dining restaurants will have a dedicated sommelier (pronounced som-mel-yay) which is an on-staff wine expert. The true sommeliers are trained and certified by several professional organizations. These people are always well versed in the various wines on their list. Listen to their advice and recommendations, but don’t be bullied or swayed into buying a high-priced wine. Stick to your budget. They are trained to find you a good wine in your price range.
One of my fun experiences with a sommelier occurred when Mrs. Tiedemann and I were dining at Smith and Wollensky’s steakhouse in Chicago several years ago. The sommelier, a recent graduate of sommelier training, asked me if he could help me select a wine. I pointed to a very expensive bottle of Cabernet and said, “Yes, I want this wine, only for half the price.” And to my amazement, he quickly said “I have just the wine.” And he pointed to a bottle of Métisse by winemaker Philippe Melka. So on his recommendation I bought the Métisse and to my amazement it really was similar to the wine that I had jokingly pointed to on the wine list. And I have now started buying the Métisse from Melka’s Wines for our personal cellar, as it turned out to be an excellent wine.
A Couple Final Thoughts:
- Resist ordering the big name or cult wines on the list, unless you are really familiar with the winery or vintage. These wines are expensive and perhaps overpriced as you are paying for the name.
- When ordering or purchasing Sauvignon Blanc, never order one that is over 2 vintages old. Younger is always better in these very light white wines.
- Don’t order an older rosé. I recommend not ordering anything pink older than one vintage.
- If you experience difficulty selecting a bottle of wine from the list go back to the wines by the glass and make a selection.
Ordering wine should be fun and rewarding. It doesn’t have to be a scary or intimidating. Just remember the basics we have covered and you’ll be a “wine pro” with any list.