It’s your third date, and you’re sitting down to dinner at the restaurant you’ve both wanted to try—and where you hope to stir up some romance over a memorable meal. But when the server hands you a wine list the size of an encyclopedia – or an iPad, with a drop-down menu – you freeze. “Do you want to do a bottle?” asks your date innocently. Together, you open the tome to the first page: an index, full of grape names you’ve never seen, and regions you can’t pronounce. Suddenly, the date has become less romantic, and more academic.
Even at a restaurant with a less voluminous wine list, it can still be intimidating to decide what to drink. While simple math will show you that ordering a bottle can be a much better deal than by-the-glass options, the stress of paging through a menu, talking with a sommelier, and tasting the wine can be enough to make you throw up your hands in defeat and order beer instead.
With some guidance, it is possible to decode a wine menu, and get a bottle that you—and your wallet—will be satisfied with. Enjoying a bottle allows you to relax with the wine, instead of thinking about whether to order another glass—you just let the server pour. Not only are glass pours more marked up than bottles, but a bottle “insures the integrity of your wine,” because “it hasn’t been open for days, kept on a warm bar shelf, or in a cold beer cooler,” explains Naureen Zaim, who recently came on as a somm at Eveleigh, in Los Angeles, and holds an International Sommelier Guild Diploma.
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Finding a great wine can be done with – or without – the help of a sommelier, and a basic sense of what you like. We reached out to wine experts around the country for their pro tips on how to successfully navigate any wine menu.
Tip #1: Do a little online research before you get there.
You scope out the dinner menu before you choose a place, so why not the wine list? This is the advice from sommelier Susanne Lerescu, of New Jersey’s fine-dining establishment Restaurant Latour, which has two cork-covered binder wine menus – separate ones for whites / Champagne and another for reds / Port – and a cellar with over 9000 labels.
“Many restaurants with a voluminous wine list are proud of their accomplishment and have it posted online for guests’ convenience,” says Lerescu. “Familiarize yourself a little with the list so you already have a good idea what you are going to face, once you are at the restaurant with your dining companions. And by the way, the attention should be on your dining companions – never on the wine list for more than a couple of minutes!”
Tip #2: If the list is organized by varietal (grape), then it’s probably lightest to fullest.
If you don’t know much about the thousands of grape varietals out there, then seeing a menu organized that way can really feel like reading Latin. But a major hack is knowing that you’re essentially looking at a spectrum of lighter-bodied wines to fuller-bodied.
“Pinot Noirs before Merlots, before Cabs, etc,” as Zaim puts it. “You can guestimate how much body your wine will have by how deep into the list it is.”
Austin Ferrari, of Hillside Supper Club, also mentioned this tip, adding that it’s helpful to know whether you generally prefer lighter or fuller wines. “Choose by deciding what you’ve liked previously,” he says. He also mentions that one foolproof wine to look for is often listed first: A white wine known as Muscadet, from the Northwest of France.
“Not only is Muscadet generally light, crisp, salty and refreshing, but it would be a white wine that’s typically listed first. It’s very hard to miss and is usually carried at most restaurants,” he said. A bone dry, mineral Muscadet—not to be confused with the sweet Italian wine, Moscato—is an ideal oyster pairing, too.
Tip #3: Work the somm to your advantage.
It can seem pretentious, time-consuming, or nerve-wracking to have a sommelier hovering over your table. Will he try to upsell? Will you look ignorant talking with the somm, in front of your cute date?
Chances are, your fears are unfounded. “I spend so much time putting this list together, I want to share it,” says Jared Hooper, wine director at Faith & Flower in Los Angeles. “Every single bottle on my list is something that I like and would want to drink, it’s all a matter of helping my guests find the right wine and the right pairing for the food. It’s our whole reason for being there! Don’t be intimidated or worried, we’re here to help.”
But be clear with what you have in mind, as much as possible. Hooper says, “Know what boundaries you have on price and communicate that range. Once we know what you’d like to spend, we can narrow down the options and help you find something within that range.”
And lastly, keep an open mind – the somm might surprise you with a great option you weren’t looking for.
Tip #4: When in doubt, drink bubbles.
Sparkling wine is by no means reserved only for celebrations (or brunch). It’s an excellent choice for dining, as well. Bubbles are “delicious, pair with just about everything, especially fried foods, semi spicy foods, and richer dishes, to dessert,” says Austin Ferrari, beverage director at San Francisco’s Hillside Supper Club. He recommends considering sparkling wine your first bottle of the evening, to go with appetizers or small plates – and then perhaps moving onto something fuller-bodied as the food gets more substantial.
For a treat that’s also a good value, Ferrari’s advice is to look for a “grower Champagne,” meaning a sparkling wine from the Champagne region by a winemaker who also farms grapes (as opposed to buying the juice). Or, get even more bang for your buck with a Cremant, a sparkling wine from any other French region.
Tip #5: When still in doubt, drink rosé.
As much as bubbles are not just for celebrating, rosé is not just a summer wine. “I drink rosés all year,” says Mariel Wega, beverage director at a.kitchen in Philadelphia. She continues, “rosés are versatile food companions, and can often please many different palates at the same table.” Some of rosé’s best companions, according to Wega: “Mediterranean fare, grilled sausages, fish, seafood, herbs, tomato-based dishes, pretty much anything.”
And contrary to the notion that rosé should be drunk the same year it’s bottled, Wega suggests getting rosé from previous vintages, or even a bottle with a few years of age. “These wines offer the best of what drinkers look for in both: an intriguing savoriness and complexity while retaining bright, vibrant minerality that won’t fatigue the palette.”
The ultimate win? Sparkling rosé. “Bubbles, especially pink ones, have a magically capacity to alleviate all of your troubles, and that sets the tone for a promising evening,” says Jason Soloway, wine director and co-owner at The Eddy, in New York City.
Tip #6: Go cheap.
You might think that spending more would get a better bottle, or at least impress your date. Not so. Mariel Wega actually recommends ordering the least expensive bottle. “It’s on the list because the sommelier likes it. In a nice restaurant with a good wine program, you can trust that even those cheaper bottles have something to say.”
But Charlotte Randolph, partner and wine director at San Francisco’s Californios, would steer you a bit higher. “Go for mid-priced bottles,” she says. The reason? Mark-ups for selling wine are highest at the low-end of the price spectrum, Randolph explains. “A restaurant might charge you three times or more the wholesale cost if the bottle is cheap.”
Tara Herrick, wine director at San Francisco’s Dirty Water, agrees with Randolph. “I would advise talking to the sommelier and working with a price point of $60-$68,” she says. “Lesser known regions and grapes will be typically priced better then they typical stuff.”
The takeaway? A cheap bottle is a good bet, and you don’t need to feel unsophisticated for ordering it. But a mid-priced bottle is an even better bet, because you’ll get better juice for what you’re paying.
Tip #7: Do not freak out about pairings (or anything, actually).
You’re having steak, he ordered the fish. Now what? Before you hide the wine menu under the table and ask for “the house red,” take Jason Soloway’s advice to chill out. “Don’t get too fussed over the perfect wine and food pairing. The basic pairing rule is that the wine should have more acid than the food. If you accomplish that, more often than not, you”ll be fine.”
If the notion of a wine having “acidity” sounds too complex, think of this way: generally speaking, the less oak-aging and less alcohol a wine has, the higher its acidity will be. Ask the somm to recommend a “bright” wine to sound really suave.
But Soloway cautions that the worst thing you can do is stress out about the “rules” of wine pairing. “Relax, it’s rotten grape juice. Tradition dictates that you start with sparkling wine, then move onto white, red and if you’re ambitious, dessert wine,” but there’s no need to follow tradition. It’s 2015! Do what you like, people. “Feel free to mix it up,” says Soloway. “Nothing bad will happen and more likely, something wonderful will.”