For most of us, going out to dinner is a treat. But when you arrive at the restaurant and are immediately handed what feels like an encyclopedia of unfamiliar grape varieties, more wine regions than you knew existed, and excessively priced bottles, even the most confident wine buff can feel instant anxiety. Don’t worry - ordering wine at a restaurant doesn’t have to be a daunting or embarrassing task. We’re here to provide a few pointers on what to think about before you even step foot in the restaurant, and how to navigate a potentially panic-inducing wine list.
What To Expect
Markups are unavoidable in the restaurant world, unless you’re dining at a BYOB and bringing your own bottle. Don’t be surprised if you see a wine cost three times (or more) the price you paid at your local shop (or from your favorite online wine retailer, *ahem*). For wines by the glass, you’ll probably also notice that four glasses of that wine are far more than you’d spend on the bottle itself. This is pretty standard.
Glass vs. Bottle
Purchasing wine by the glass can be a little more pricey but is a great option when you’re not quite sure what to order. You can use this opportunity to be bold and pick grape varieties you’ve never heard of or a region of the world you’re not very familiar with. This can also be a useful option if your dining party can’t agree on a bottle or style of wine, or if you aren’t sure if you’ll finish an entire bottle.
At a restaurant, you’re likely to eat more than one course (and will probably be sampling the courses your dinner party is also ordering). Chances are, you’re not going to be pairing each course with a different wine, so aim for something that isn’t too extreme and will work with different foods - skip that super tannic Tannat, lusciously oaky California Chardonnay, or 16+% alcohol Zinfandel. Believe it or not, we don’t fret too much about the perfect pairing in a restaurant setting, so you can use the wine by the glass option if you’re looking to pair individual styles of wine with your different courses.
At The Restaurant
First, if you get a chance, scope out the wine menu online before you even step foot in the restaurant. This will give you an idea of what this particular establishment has to offer and may give you time to do a little research beforehand. Try and pick your courses first and then gauge which wine style will pair with your food choices. If you’re going out to eat at an Italian restaurant, look for Italian wines on the menu. If it’s French fare you’re about to nosh on, opt for French wines. If you have multiple wine regions to pick from, stick with the saying “what grows together, goes together.”
When you arrive at the restaurant, ask if they have a sommelier or wine steward. If so, you’re in luck! This person is paid to help you decide what kind of wine will work best for you, your party, your meal, and your budget. If there’s no somm, don’t worry! You’re in control.
Take your time.
You’ll likely be asked for your drink order before you even get a chance to look at the food options, but don’t feel pressured to pick something right away. Ask for a few more minutes if you need it. Pick your courses, then start scanning the wine list.
Set your price.
The wine list will have a wide range of prices, from reasonable to laugh-out-loud expensive. It’s fun to see what the priciest offering is, but be realistic (and a little flexible) with what you want to pay. Have a budget in mind - this way you’re not surprised when the bill comes. Generally, the cheaper the bottles on a menu, the higher the markup, so picking the cheapest or even second cheapest may not be worth the wine itself. If it’s a special occasion, don’t be scared to spoil yourself a little.
Go for something new.
Going out to eat is fun, so why pick your trusty standby wine? Opting for more obscure wines can often be a better deal - the markups are more reasonable and they can give you the chance to try wines that you may not be able to buy on your own or were maybe nervous to try. If you’re unsure, ask the somm or your server if they have suggestions on styles - maybe you like a crisp, high acid white but don’t want your regular Sauvignon Blanc. You might be recommended an Assyrtiko from Greece, Albariño from Spain, or Grüner Veltliner from Austria. Don’t be afraid to give something new a try.
Trust your instincts.
If you’re ordering a bottle of wine, the server will pour a sample for you at the table. The key here is to quickly determine if there are any flaws. Sometimes wine goes bad or is "corked." The only way to know if a wine is good to drink is to open the bottle and take a sip. If a sommelier is present, they’ll know right away. If there’s no somm, take a sniff of the wine and a sip. If it smells or tastes musty, like wet cardboard, vinegar, or sulfur (burnt matchsticks or rotten eggs) send it back!
Bring your own.
Unsure if you want to commit to an unknown bottle? You can always bring your own! BYOB restaurants are all the rage and give you full control of your options - and you’ll be paying significantly less. If the restaurant you chose isn’t a BYOB, you can still bring your own bottle but be sure to call ahead of time to see how much they charge for a corking fee (yep, sometimes you’ll get charged for bringing your own alcohol to an establishment that sells alcohol). Chances are this fee will be between $20 and $40, which may still make your bottle a cheaper option than the restaurant markup price.
Most importantly - don’t stress.
If you’re feeling particularly indecisive, get a bottle of non-vintage Champagne. Non-vintage bottles are often reasonably priced and Champagne is fairly high in acid, which means it will pair with almost anything. Who doesn’t love a bottle of bubbly?