How to confidently order wine at a restaurant
At a good restaurant, diners can’t go wrong when they order wine; even the least expensive is very drinkable.
When traveling, drinking wine with meals, especially across the US and Europe, is part of the experience. After a lifetime of drinking wine and then watching friends fumble and stress when asked to order wine from a restaurant menu, I have some foolproof suggestions.
These rules don’t come haphazardly. They can be used for any occasion when you face a daunting wine list and are forced to order for a group.
Plus, I am assuming that, like me, you are not used to forking over $100 per bottle at a restaurant, or anytime. Don’t let social conventions get in your way when ordering. You’ll be surprised at how many of your dining mates are impressed by your knowledge of choosing a wonderful and affordable bottle for the meal.
You can order wine at a restaurant anywhere in the world
I have some meager credentials after a handful of years judging the Southwest Wine Competition. I was considered a man-on-the-street judge initially and ended up with the following impressive wine biography in one of the last regional competitions.
Charlie grew up with wine in Italy and in Germany. He currently reviews restaurants at more than 150 different ski resorts in the USA, Canada and Europe, from Ski Apache in Ruidoso to New England, and from Whistler, Canada, to the Alps in Europe.
He has tested wines together with top editors of Wine Spectator and Oinologia Magazine at many major wineries in the Navarra and Rioja regions of Spain, the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions of France, Veneto, Tuscany and Piemonte in Italy, as well as in the Mosel and Rhine Valleys and the Alsace region of Germany, and the Valais in Switzerland. Charlie recently went on his first tasting trip to Sonoma and will return from another tour of wineries in Northern Spain just prior to the Southwest Wine Competition.
Drinking wine is part of the grand experience of dining. When asked to order wine at a restaurant, it should not be daunting. These tips and rules are normally universal, whether ordering in a luxury restaurant or at the corner bistro. Remember, wine is an organic creation and a living thing. Even the most expensive wine can be flawed, just as the least expensive can. Plus, any decent restaurant will not question your decisions about what to order or, heaven forbid, turn back as unacceptable. Be brave. Read on. You can’t go wrong.
Decide whether you want red or white or rosé
Forget the old rules of white with fish, red with beef, or strong wines with strong cheeses and light wines with bland cheeses. Wine is a personal choice. I have enjoyed fish and poultry with perfect red wines and steak or lamb with flavorful white Chardonnays.
In general, I’m a traditionalist. My favorites are crisp, dry white wines like Chablis, Viura, or Muscadet with fish and big, bold, red Rioja, Rhone, Malbec, and Piemonte wines with beef and lamb. But, that is a personal decision and, admittedly, I have broken all the pairing rules without ever discovering a wine that wasn’t drinkable with the meal. My biggest faux pas has been ordering an excellent and expensive red wine when faced with a mediocre meal. In that case, though I enjoyed the exceptional wine, it was a shame that it had to be shared with such an inferior food pairing.
A wine-pairing surprise I’ll always remember
One of the biggest surprises when dining was enjoying a different wine with sweet Gorgonzola cheese. After a wonderful gourmet dinner in Skarsnuten Hotel, above the Hemsedal ski resort in Norway, I wanted to try the sweet Gorgonzola cheese. I ordered a glass of a big red wine to go with the strong cheese as I always do. The waitress immediately suggested that I drink a German Riesling wine with the cheese. The Danish waitress assured me that it was a wonderful blend of semi-sweet wine with a big flavored cheese. Plus, she assured me that if I didn’t enjoy it, she would pay for any replacement I wanted. With an offer like that, I couldn’t say, “No.” This Riesling paired with the sweet Gorgonzola cheese was absolutely delightful. The cheese made all the difference in the wine selection and I learned a delightfully delicious lesson.
Don’t order the second least expensive wine
One of Boston’s top restaurateurs taught me a trick of the trade. The biggest markup on wines is normally reserved for the second-to-the-least expensive wine on the wine list. Keep that in mind when you order wine from a restaurant.
I used to encourage him to keep a less-than-$20 bottle of wine on his menu. I told him that he needed it for less-than-rich diners who wanted an affordable wine. He told me that after a month of pricing the wine at $17 a bottle, he had not sold out his initial order. The next weekend, he moved the wine to the second-to-the-least expensive slot and raised the price to $24. His entire cellar of that wine sold out in an evening.
Uncertain wine buyers rarely want to look “cheap” by ordering the least expensive wine on the menu. So, they gravitate to the next wine in line. I’ve seen it happen from restaurant to restaurant with thousands of customers. You can bet that the biggest markup is on the almost-the-least-expensive wine. Customers who buy that wine, in that case, are getting the least for their dining dollar.
No restaurateur should feature a poor wine, even the least expensive selection
Remember that whenever ordering wine. If the lowest-priced wine on the menu is bad, don’t return to that restaurant. The owner probably pays as much attention to the cuisine as he pays to the wine list.
Sometimes the most expensive wines are the best value
Restaurants have different pricing structures for their wine lists. Some owners simply add $20 or $25 to the price of each bottle. That means a wine that retails for $10 in the store will cost $30-$35 on a wine list. It also means that a wine that retails for $50 will cost between $70 and $75 on the same wine list.
Ordering wine when dining out can be a good time to test some of the more expensive wines. You may have been discussing them with wine-snob friends. It will allow you to see what all the fuss is about. Many times, the more expensive wines are a better value when compared to the more pedestrian labels.
Ordering wine you don’t know — a good time to experiment
If you see a wine on the list that you don’t know, remember the rule that no decent restaurateur will put a bad wine on his list.
Unusual wines are a good excuse to engage the waiter or owner and ask about something different. You should specifically ask why that particular and unusual wine is included on their list. Let the waiter or owner know that you are curious about it. Then go ahead and try it if the answers are satisfactory and you truly want to try something new.
Most diners have not heard about German Spätburgunder or Georgian wines. Few have experienced special grapes such as Carménère. This variety, once grown extensively in France, is found more often in Chile today. Many know Pinot Grigio, but few have experienced a red Raboso from the same region of Veneto, Italy.
Screwcaps on white wine are a good thing; on rosés and young reds, as well
When you order wine at a restaurant, don’t sneer at screwcaps on wines. I admit that having the waiter or sommelier twist off the cap of your dinner wine isn’t as romantic or expressive as hearing a cork pop or watching the corkscrew rituals. However, young red wines and rosé wines don’t need a cork. Many young white wines (the way they should be drunk) are perfectly fine coming from screwtop bottles. In fact, they are often better.
Most wine drinkers in the U.S. don’t realize when they are faced with “corked” wine. They end up drinking the tainted wine, though they think it is a bit “unusual.” Screwtop bottles have eliminated this spoilage problem that affects one bottle out of every two cases of wine, by some estimates (perhaps more).
Most states allow diners to take an unfinished bottle home
This is surprising to most citizens, but it is true. Here is a complete list of the state laws that govern carrying wine from restaurants. When a bottle is opened with a meal and then not finished, it can go home with you.
Some states require that wine be re-corked. The cork should be inserted back to the lip of the bottle so it can only be removed with a corkscrew. Other states require that wine be put into a wine doggy bag. Some states rule that wine taken from a restaurant must be carried in the car trunk or locked in the glove compartment.
Knowing unfinished wine often can be carried home can make a difference. It allows diners to order bottles later in the meal and not be worried about drinking it all prior to departing for home. It is a safety and common sense issue. But, make sure your state allows the practice.
Each bottle has five glasses of wine
I add this last bit of information to allow comparisons between bottle costs and by-the-glass costs. Anyone making the decision when ordering wine about buying a bottle or buying wine by the glass can have some sense of proportion. If everyone at the table is drinking the same wine, purchasing a bottle is normally the best bet. However, if a couple is dining and one wants to drink white and the other insists on red, buying by the glass may be the way to go.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 12 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.