Don’t Let the Wine List Intimidate You: Ordering wine in a restaurant should be fun, not stressful. Try this approach.

This article first appeared in Arlington Magazine on May 15, 2017

It’s hard to say what I love most about wine. The taste? The feeling it gives me? The vineyards it comes from? The memories it helps to make? I could go on and on.

What is easy for me, by contrast, is naming what I hate most about wine.

My biggest issue with wine is the culture of intimidation that surrounds it. It makes me crazy that a beverage that is so accessible, so broadly appealing and so conducive to conviviality remains, for many, unapproachable. Why? Mostly because it can be hard to buy it or order it in a restaurant.

Do wine lists leave you feeling bewildered and moderately illiterate? As a guy who has spent 20 years in the restaurant business, let me say, first and foremost, that it is the restaurant’s job to make you feel comfortable and help you find something you like. But good communication between the customer and the house can also demystify the process. Here’s where you come in:

Know what you like.

Seems simple, right? It’s not. A lot of people order wine that they think they like, that they think they are supposed to like or that someone else likes. The best way to identify what you like is to try a lot of different wines. Take advantage of tastings at wine shops, festivals, even the grocery store. If you’re trying to decide which wine-by-the-glass to order in a bar or restaurant, ask to taste more than one. I have seen people’s eyes widen with joy the first time they taste a wine that truly suits their palate. You don’t have to buy a whole bottle to find out that you don’t like a particular grape.

Start basic.

Red or white? Lighter or heavier? A little sweet or a little dry? Creamy and buttery or crisp and minerally? Fuller mouth feel because of malolactic fermentation? Okay, just kidding on that last one, but you can see how people can get carried away. You shouldn’t have to know what that means to order wine off a wine list. If you have a general sense of what suits you and you can articulate those characteristics in lay terms, then it doesn’t matter if all the wines on the list are Italian and you’ve never heard of them. Describe what you are in the mood for and a good staff member should be able to match that up with what the place has in stock.

State your price point.

Don’t be shy. Money is weird, and oftentimes guests don’t want to say (and have their entire table hear) that they want to keep it under $30 a bottle. Of course that is your prerogative as a customer, but if you aren’t specific then you leave the staff guessing. A good bartender, sommelier or server will suggest wines at different price points to tease out a sense of your budget, but if you’re up front about it, the conversation will go a lot faster. The good news? Restaurants now offer incredible wines across many different price points, particularly as they tap into emerging wine regions in lesser-known places like Croatia and Bulgaria. You don’t have to spend $100 to find a bottle that will blow you away.

Fear not the screw top.

Cork trees can take 100 years to mature (not exactly sustainable), and screw tops keep wine better preserved anyway. Great wine comes with twist-off caps. Trust me.

Don’t like it? Speak up!

There’s no need to ruin a good meal by suffering through a wine that isn’t working for you. A good restaurant will have the policy that you get the wine you want, period—even if your dislike isn’t immediately apparent upon your first sip. Keep in mind that a wine will change quite a bit as it breathes, and it may taste different once you pair it with food, so there is no shame in switching bottles a few minutes in. (Although if the bottle is half gone, don’t be that guest.) Don’t fret that the wine will go to waste if you send it back. It won’t. Provided the bottle isn’t corked (a fancy word for wine that’s “turned” or sour), the restaurant management may offer it by the glass, use it for staff education or drink it themselves. This is basic customer service and a cost of doing business. But if you don’t speak up, they may never know.

 

Nick Freshman is a co-owner of Spider Kelly’s in Clarendon and principal of Mothersauce Partners, an Arlington-based investment and consulting venture that helps D.C.-area chefs and restaurateurs bring new food and drink concepts to fruition. www.mothersaucepartners.com

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