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How to Navigate a Restaurant's Wine List Like a Pro

Our favorite sommelier shares her tips to take the stress out of choosing a wine. 

red wine
Photography by: Janelle Jones

The moment the wine list is presented at a restaurant can either be the start of an exciting adventure or a source of intimidation and dread. With so many options, how are you supposed to choose? Never fear, our sommelier is here: Wine contributor Sarah Tracey shares the easiest, most stress-free wine list strategies.

 

Related: A Beginner's Guide to Italian Wine

 

Start by Making Three Simple Decisions

The process of choosing a wine should begin before you even open the wine list! Instead of paging through a lengthy wine menu, getting overwhelmed, and eventually opting out of the whole thing by asking for "a glass of house white," start with a conversation among the table. Having an idea of what you're looking for before you search through the options is a key to success no matter what you're looking for. There are the three things you need to decide, and the rest of the process will flow from there. Your three questions: Should we order by the glass or by the bottle? What style of wine are we looking for? How much do we want to spend?

 

Wine lists will have a section where you can order by the glass, and also usually a bigger selection of bottles for the table to share. Pro tip: The bottle is almost always a much better value. Restaurants mark up the glass pours significantly more than the bottle selections. If bang-for-your-buck is the main objective, your should absolutely stick to the bottle section. Not certain if your group will finish a whole bottle? Check with your waiter: In many states it's perfectly legal to take leftover wine home with you. Another reason to order a bottle: You have higher odds that the quality will be on point. In some restaurants, wines by the glass may be poured from a bottle that's been left open behind the bar for several days, and the liveliness may be starting to fade. When you order your own bottle, you know it's freshly opened and the aromas and flavors will be most vibrant. Even so, there's a time and a place for ordering by the glass. If your guests have very different taste preferences (one only drinks sweet whites, another only hearty reds), going by the glass will ensure everyone is satisfied. Another perk is that if most of the wines are unfamiliar, with a glass pour you can usually "try before you buy" as most restaurants will offer complimentary tastes of wines they already have open.

 

As for choosing your style, that's as simple as red, white, sparkling or rosé. Don't overthink it. Many wine lovers are nervous to admit they prefer rich red wines at their favorite seafood restaurant, for example. While food and wine pairing can be a wonderful treat and a major focus for sommeliers, if you're the one buying the wine you should drink what you love. End of story. 

 

Last but not least, think about what you want to spend. This will help you rule out 90 percent of the options, and help you focus on the wines that are actually in your desired price range! Doing this before you open the list is hugely helpful because it will often turn hundreds of options into just a handful, before you start perusing. Extra bonus points if you relay your price range to your server: You can say it out loud or simply point to a price point on the menu and say "We'd like something in this range." Most people are reluctant to name their budget, but you shouldn't be: For restaurant staff it's a huge relief to know what you're comfortable with—you're saving them time by ensuring they won't recommend a bunch of wines that would never be a fit for you. And be specific: Vague statements like "nothing too expensive" aren't helpful as perceptions of that may vary. 

 

Related: How Long Does an Open Bottle of Wine Last?

 

Next, Pick a Region or Grape Variety

Once you've done the hard work of deciding on a bottle versus a glass, choosing the style you want, and deciding on a price range, the rest is easy! Wine lists are often organized by the grape variety or the region where the wine comes from. If it's indexed by the type of grape, choose a grape variety you know you love (varieties like sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon will be available everywhere—even better if you have more specialized favorites). If the wine list is organized by region, pick an area you may already be familiar with (Bordeaux, Chianti, Cotes du Rhone) because if you have had one wine you liked from that place, chances are the other wines made there will be a fit for your palate. 

 

Now, narrow it down to a few options that are in your price range, and ask the server what the differences are. One might be a riper vintage, one may aged in oak vs. steel barrels; all these stylistic differences the restaurant staff should be aware of. When in doubt, ask for a pairing. If you're truly at a loss and nothing on the list looks familiar (and those lists are out there), ask your server for a recommendation in the style and price range you have decided on, that goes with the dishes you have ordered. This can be a very fun way to discover a new wine you love—Bulgarian mavrud or Uruguayan tannat, anyone?

 

If You Don't Like It, Say So

Hopefully, if you have followed the strategies above, there has been great communication and you will love your selection. But, the wine just isn't something you enjoy—say so, as soon as possible (if you finish the entire bottle and then complain, it's unlikely that they will refund you). The wine may actually be flawed, in which case the staff should be able to help replace it; and if it's simply not what you expected, most restaurants want their guests to have a great experience and will remove the wine and try to help find something you will love.