Whether you’re struggling to identify the ingredients in your Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast, or reveling in a $45 plate of slow-roasted carrots enigmatically named “Symphony,” dining out has its challenges, especially when it comes to navigating the wine list.
It’s not your fault. Too many restaurant wine lists read like a tax attorney wrote a summary of your debts in a beautiful foreign language. And then there are the somms themselves, who blatantly carry around sabers like they’re only meant for dramatically opening Champagne bottles — and not to terrify you. It’s a hard situation not to mess up. But since we — clearly — care deeply about the successful retrieval of wine in almost all occasions, here are some more common mistakes to correct.
We Apologize Too Quickly for “Sucking at Wine.”
First and foremost, this has got to stop. As much as I appreciate the benefits of a moderate amount of self-loathing, a lot of us over-apologize when it comes to wine savvy. It’s the same spirit of not sending back a dish (“It’s O.K., I ordered it with the cockroach!”). We take an obsequious, “don’t-look-sommelier-directly-in-the-eye” approach when it comes to knowing, or not knowing, about wine. Yes, sommeliers know a ridiculous amount and probably drive a better car than you and can jump higher and stuff. But they’re also in the business to find what you want, not what you know.
We Treat the Sommelier Like Ryan Gosling.
Don’t crush on your somm. Also don’t slap him or her in the face with a dueling glove. There’s a medium ground, the kind of casual, temporary friendship that’s fundamental to good hospitality. So no swapping Instagram info or chest bumping, but also don’t let anyone politely bully you into a wine you don’t want. A good sommelier got into the business of making you feel relaxed. At home. Also buzzed.
We Blitz Our Palates.
Ordering a “big” wine can be a mini-thrill. But when you do that, you’re basically selling the precious timeshare that is your palate to a wine that won’t respect — or leave — the property when the food arrives. If you’ve ever brushed your teeth and chugged some OJ, you know your palate’s a sensitive little mechanism. Don’t pelt it with hard tannin or lard it up with flabby oak all night long. Not only will you not taste the nuances of your (probably expensive) meal, but the wine itself will start to dull. And then you might as well just switch to vodka.
We Order Too Much, or Too Little.
Ordering wine by the bottle can be more economical, especially if you’re in a group, going for a showstopper, or hell-bent on a specific pairing. But then there’s the “I’m only having one” mistake some of us make. Three by-the-glass orders later, we’ve paid something like 400 percent too much. If you and your party don’t have a game plan prior to going in, consult your somm. Good info to share: what amount/variety of courses you’re looking to eat, whether you’d be interested in half-bottles (a great way to try new wines), and, of course, how many people are interested in drinking wine with dinner. Most somms aren’t trying to open a bottle you won’t finish, and most restaurants won’t let you strut home with it.
Wine Isn’t Data. Don’t Try to Understand It That Way.
We assess ourselves, and our things, via technology — right and left swipes, Yelp reviews, that terrifying number on your (clearly wrong) digital scale. It doesn’t tend to reflect real experience, especially with wine. You can try to “inform” yourself with scores or online wine reviews, but you’re missing an opportunity to understand wine through the most important venue: your palate. Forget Google and talk to your sommelier. You’ll likely find a wine that fits your meal without a highly subjective rating system, online algorithm, or snarky review from a stranger you’ll never meet, who also probably sucks.
We Order Wines We Can Get at the Store.
If there’s a wine you love, a wine you simply must have, sure, go for it. But part of the fun of dining out is having both food and drink you probably wouldn’t normally encounter. (When’s the last time you made Uni Toast with a Shiitake-Miso Reduction and Watercress Droplets? O.K., that dish doesn’t exist. Probably.) Wine lists tend to have special bottles because someone who studied a lot and loves wine a lot wants to share them. So even if you see your old faithful Sauvignon Blanc on the list, remember, a) it’s marked up, wait for the wine store; and b) your somm can guide you to something similar, but new. And, thus, hella fun.
We Buy the Second-Cheapest Bottle on the Menu.
At this point in my economic downfall, I have zero compunction ordering house wine. It’s almost always serviceable, which is no surprise; it’s been chosen to represent the house, the wine “brand” of the restaurant that’ll probably match well with most menu items. But a lot of us, maybe not to seem cheap, order the second-cheapest bottle — a mistake. A lot of restaurants anticipate our fiduciary shame and buy super-cheap, low-quality wines for their second-cheapest options (and a big profit margin for them). Our best advice, if you’re on a budget, go house wine. And if you’re desperate to seem classy, wear a monocle.
We Forget That Food is Evolving to Pair with Wine.
Modern wine pairing isn’t about sommeliers chasing chefs with bottles. Chefs and sommeliers are increasingly collaborative, creating menus and wine lists in tandem. A lot of us walk into a restaurant assuming we should know how to order wine with our meal, but one of the benefits of our (mildly obsessive) food culture is increased forethought: chef and somm thinking it through so you don’t have to.
We Try to Imitate the Vocab.
Unless you regularly reference pencil shavings, supple tannins, or evasive quince notes that just dance on your palate, you shouldn’t have to use those descriptors — or try to interpret them — when ordering wine. Using language that feels more comfortable to you will actually help a sommelier understand where you’re coming from and which wines would suit you best. Side note: If you come across a wine list that’s too verbally intimidating, don’t let the language chase you away. Just ask for the somm and, while you wait, repeat this mantra: “There’s no way I will allow words or numbers or scary italicized fonts stand between me and my glass of wine.”