Not that there’s anything wrong with Pinot Grigio, but so often we order that fall-back glass of Pinot (feel free to insert your default wine choice here). Ordering from a wine list can be intimidating, especially when it’s as thick as the Stieg Larssen trilogy and contains nearly as much mystery. Many of us happily pass the wine list to our neighbors, content to forego the decision ourselves. But taking the wine list into your own hands gives you a better chance of enjoying your wine and shows your date/client/in-laws that you’re a confident woman of the world.
Here, a few guidelines to point you in the right direction:
1. Consult the Wine List & Start with Sparkling
Let your dinner companions figure out what they’re eating before ordering wine from the wine list. Waiters MUST STOP asking what you’d like to drink before you’ve surveyed the menu. If you want to order a wine to kick off the meal, start with a sparkling wine such as Champagne or Prosecco. While a quality Champagne may not be in your budget, a Cremant d’Alsace (a sparkling wine from Alsace, France, made from the same process as Champagne) is a pocketbook-friendly alternative that suits appetizers well. You can move onto a red wine for the main course, knowing you’ll have satisfied both the red- and white-wine drinkers at the table.
2. Use Your Resources & Ask the Sommelier
Sommeliers and wait staff love to help. Give the sommelier as much direction as you can. Want a wine that’s food friendly or to drink on its own? Red or white? Bold or subtle? Crisp or smooth and buttery? Ask the sommelier interesting questions and earn the admiration of your dinner companions. “Which wine on your wine list is really interesting?” “Any hidden gems?” “What will you drink tonight?” Alternatively, describe a great wine you had recently and ask for something similar.
3. Know Your Budget before You Look at the Wine List
In a subtle way, make your budget clear to the waiter. Point to the price of a bottle in your range on the wine list, explain that you were thinking of getting that bottle, and ask if the waiter can suggest something more appropriate for the group. A helpful waiter will pick up on your hint.
4. Consider Wine & Food Pairings Before Ordering Wine
If you want to exercise more control over your wine choice, select a wine to complement the meal. An easy method: think about what your dining companions will be eating and try to match wine to the weight of the food. While wine and food pairings can get complicated, generally heavier dishes like steaks or seasoned meats need a full-bodied, hearty wine like a Malbec or a Bordeaux. Fish and lighter fare require a light- to medium-bodied wine: reds like Syrah and Merlot, or whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. A well-matched wine pairing can make a meal.
5. When Ordering Wine, It’s Great to Go Regional
When I’m in a Tuscan restaurant, I choose a Tuscan wine. In a Provençal restaurant, I choose a wine from Provence. Over time, any given region develops wine to complement the local cuisine. That makes the wine pairings easier, as well.
6. Have an All-Purpose, Go-To Wine
If all else fails, order a bottle of red or white that is generally food-friendly and suits a wide spectrum of palates. My “default” wine choices are a dry Riesling from Alsace; a Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Oregon; and a Vacqueyras (a Grenache blend with Syrah or Mourvèdre) from France.
7. Go Stealth & Decide on a Wine Purchase in Advance
If you really want to impress your date, ask the restaurant to fax over the wine list before your meal or see if it’s available online. Then, hit up your wine geek friend for suggestions. You can walk in with confidence and know exactly which wine you will purchase!