We’ve all been there before. You’re on a date, entertaining new clients, or trying to make a good impression on your family members at dinner. You sit down at a nice restaurant, the sommelier hands you a 15-page wine list and – if you’re like most people – you freeze up when it comes to ordering the bottle of wine.
You think to yourself, What if I don’t like the wine I choose? Will it complement my entree? What if it’s corked? How do I pronounce it? Even if you’re a wine enthusiast and you know your way around wine regions and varietals, the options can be overwhelming.
However, at Wine Access, we believe that drinking wine in restaurants shouldn’t be an intimidating or scary task. All you need is a little preparation and confidence.
As the wine experts of Wine Access, we’ve prepared a step-by-step guide for drinking wine at a restaurant. From navigating the wine list to befriending the sommelier, here are 10 tips to help you order wine at a restaurant like a pro.
1. Be adventurous
Often the best wines are the most obscure. These are the wines that the sommelier care about so much that, despite them being more of a hard-sell, they put them on the list anyway. Also, don’t be afraid to ask if there is anything "off the list" because you never know what you might find.
Most fine dining restaurants typically charge around $35 per bottle for the corkage fee. For that price, they’ll chill or decant it as necessary and serve the wine in beautiful glassware. Bringing a $65 bottle of wine (perhaps your favorite from Wine Access) will probably end up costing you the same $100 that tends to be the median on the wine list and since restaurants mark up wine prices roughly 2-3 times the retail cost, you'll enjoy a better bottle for the price if you bring your own.
3. Lean on the pros
Sommeliers are there for a reason. They know the wine list backward and forward, and can make recommendations based on your dish, the price point you’re comfortable with, or your mood. While it’s tempting to play it safe by ordering a wine you’re already familiar with, you are ultimately missing out on the opportunity to try something new and interesting.
4. Speak up
Don't be afraid to return a wine if it isn't in tip-top condition or you’re not satisfied with it. There’s nothing worse than hating a restaurant because you didn’t enjoy your wine choice. Simply ask for a fresh pour and enjoy your experience.
5. Check the temperature
Be aware of the ambient temperature. Most whites are served too cold, so make sure the server leaves a bottle out of ice on the table for a more optimal temperature. On the other hand, most reds are served too warm. Quality red wines show better at 58 to 65 degrees. Lighter-bodied reds can benefit from a two-minute chill in an ice bucket if the restaurant is warm or you’re sitting outside on a sweltering day.
6. Ask for the right glass
Glassware is key. If you’re ordering Champagne and you want a white wine glass instead of a flute, ask for it.
7. Sommelier vs. bartender – know the difference
Sommeliers have gone through rigorous trainings and received credentials, so they are trained and knowledgeable wine professionals. If you’re at a restaurant that doesn’t have a sommelier, the head bartender might have limited wine recommendations.
8. Don't be afraid of screw caps
This closure initially was used for “cheap and cheerful” wines meant for early consumption, but now top producers from regions all over the world are bottling their wines under a screw cap. It may not be as sexy as a cork, but the upshot is you know the wine isn’t in danger of cork taint, which ruins a wine.
9. Food & wine pairings
Indulge in the degustation with pairings, this can make for one of the most memorable experiences at a nice restaurant. Ask your server or the sommelier for some pairing suggestions.
10. Plan ahead
Having a plan is key. From menus to wine lists and third-party reviews, there is usually a tremendous amount of information on restaurant websites. These insights can allow you to loosely plot your own experience ahead of time so you know what to expect.
At Wine Access, we believe that wine is an exciting experience in itself whether you’re collecting wine, drinking it at home or enjoying a bottle at a restaurant. These 10 key wine-drinking tips are sure to make you feel confident that you’re doing it right to make the most of your dining experience.