How to Choose Wine in a Restaurant (And Avoid Wine List Panic Disorder)

choosing wine in a restaurant

Need help with the wine list? Here are some tips for how to choose wine in a restaurant.

The pressure is on. You are flanked by the boss and four very well-dressed potential clients. The situation is already tense. You don’t have a feel for how well the pitch is going. Just as the room becomes a little hotter, the waiter sidles up, next to you. Chin raised, he expects you to order wine for the table.

How to Choose Wine from a Restaurant Wine List

No need to panic. Don’t fumble for a Xanax. It’s just a wine list. Unlike the IRS, it won’t harm you. To the contrary, you can make the restaurant wine list your ally and trusted guide, overcome wine list panic and wind up impressing, as well as earning respect and thanks from your dinner companions. 

How to Read the Wine List

A restaurant wine list is just another document. Approach a wine list as if it were a catalog because, well, because it is, and catalogs are more fun than fearsome. Everyone likes catalogs. Relax, and flip through it. Look at how the list is organized and you’ll find it easier to understand your options. Wine list organization varies, but most often categorizes wines by:

  1. Color – red, white, rose
  2. Food Course – aperitifs, dinner wines, desert wines
  3. Region of production – Domestic, France, Sonoma Valley
  4. Specials — Occasionally, the wine list will also include a special section that showcases a single winery.

Now that you are comfortable with the structure of the wine list, find out everyone’s preferences for red or white. Absent consensus for either, plan to order a bottle of each.

Let the Sommelier Choose the Wine

Depending on the restaurant, a sommelier might be on staff. It is perfectly OK to “take charge” of the situation by, in effect, delegating the choice to the house expert, especially if you need to choose a single wine that has the best chance of complementing a variety of dishes.

A true sommelier has been through these situations countless times. In fact, part of what he or she is paid to do is to help patrons navigate through the wonderful, if sometimes daunting options to match wine and food. Many are quite skilled at picking up clues from guests to help them through their selection process gracefully. For example, when talking to the wine steward or sommelier, you might point directly to a price on the list, and say that you are “thinking of something like this, but perhaps you have a more suitable recommendation?”

Don’t be surprised, however, if the restaurant wine list quotes no prices.

Let the Wine List Determine Your Choice

If the wine list appears to focus on a specific region, vineyard, or varietal, it often indicates that the category pairs well with the restaurant’s fare, or perhaps a category expert has stocked the cellar. Selecting from a featured category of the list will likely lead to perfectly fine results, just as would selecting one of the evening’s dinner specials from the chef.

Let Conversation Guide Your Wine Choice

Restaurant wine lists should never make one panic. If you’re at the table with casual or new acquaintances, the list can prompt some enjoyable discussion. Talking it out can also take the pressure off the wine selection process in unplanned ways.

For example, you might notice that the list appears deep in selection of California Cabernets or Pinot Noir from Washington. Bring this up in conversation while you are looking over the restaurant wine list. Mention that you enjoyed your last trip to that region, or that you have always intended to go there. Someone else in your party may pick up the lead, and before you know it, it’s easy to have the group rally behind the notion of toasting shared experiences by trying a wine from the region.

Photo by Laura Padgett

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