Everyone wants to be “that guy” at the restaurant. The guy who looks at a wine list, confidently surveys his choices, and without hesitation, selects the perfect wine. “Mmm yesss. We’ll have a bottle of the…”
We all want to look like we really know wine. And the stakes are even higher when we’re trying to impress a lady or we’re out with the boss or clients. But for most of us mere mortals, it’s just not possible to keep up with all the different vintners, varietals and wine styles.
Does that mean you should just give up, close your eyes and point to something on the wine list? Not at all. There is hope.
I’ve spoken with a number of sommeliers about how to be more successful and more confident ordering wine in a restaurant. Here are just a few tips that have changed the way I think about ordering wine:
1. Ask the sommelier or server for help
It’s not unmanly to ask for help–quite the contrary. Engaging your sommelier is a great way to find out about really interesting wines or great values. Ask them, “what wines are you excited about right now?” You might even get something that’s not on the list.
Also, don’t be afraid that your sommelier is just trying to up-sell you to a more expensive wine. Many sommeliers work for tips and don’t receive commission on the wine they sell. The majority of them just want to make sure you’re happy. And they’d much rather have you be ecstatic about a $75 bottle of wine than be disappointed with a $400 bottle. Closely related to that,
2. Have a budget
There’s no shame in this. Everybody has a budget. Even if you’re on an expense account, you have an idea of what you want to spend.
Letting the server or sommelier know your price range will help save time and ensure they recommend something that will work for you.
If you’re embarrassed about mentioning price in front of your fellow diners, here’s a helpful trick: while the sommelier is standing behind you, point to a few wines on the list in your price range and say, “I’m interested in something kind of like this.” or “…wines in this style.” For added emphasis, point directly at the price rather than the wine itself. Any server or sommelier worth their salt will understand your meaning immediately.
3. Have a reference wine or style
A sommelier may be able to recommend something they like or that will pair well with your meal. But let’s face it, wine preferences are inherently subjective. If you want a wine you’re more certain to like, have a reference wine in mind.
Before you go out, write down a few specific wines that you like, and note what you like about them. That way, you can tell your server “I usually love [Wine] from [Winery], because it’s got really bold fruit and it also has that kind of dusty/musty quality that Rhone wines have.” Most of the time, the sommelier will know the exact wine you’re talking about and be able to recommend something comparable. And even if not, you’ve given them a clue about what styles you’re likely to enjoy.
Above all, have fun with it. It’s good to have an idea of what you like, but try to be open to new things. As they say, the best thing about learning about new wines is getting to drink new wines.