I can not stand it when a server or a sommelier judges me based on the cost of the wine I order. I am very quick to set the record straight when this happens. Most do not know my background in wine, beer and spirits when I sit at their table. If attitude starts to seep out into the steps of service, they learn quickly that I do not care what they think of me or my wine choices. Luckily, this does not happen often.
When you order wine in a restaurant, there are three questions you should answer in order to make an accurate decision.
Red or White?
Light or big? (this refers to the body of the wine)
Do you have a budget in mind?
On a list of 100 wines, answers to the first two questions will reduce your selection down to less than 10 wines, typically. From there, the third question makes your selection for you. So, without a server’s help, you just tore apart a wine list in a matter of seconds and you, now, know exactly what you want.
Keep in mind that there is no wrong answer to any of these questions. The first rule in drinking and knowing wine is to drink what you like. If you like pink, sweet wine, then drink pink, sweet wine and never apologize for that. If you prefer jammy, bold reds, by all means, order those wines all year long with anything you are eating. That said, of course there are better choices with certain foods, but if you do not start with a bottle you are going to like without food, then you probably are not going to like it with food.
Ordering wine in a restaurant can be intimidating. In addition to the three questions that you should answer for yourself, there are certain truths and tips that tone down all the pomp and circumstance that revolves around wine and wine service.
There is a deal on every wine list
There is a bottle on every list less than $50 that is a deal. Either a new producer that is being pushed by the distributor or it has been discounted because it is reaching its expiration, wine is always being priced to move. I make it my mission to try to find this wine.
To find a good wine for $75 or $100 a bottle is not difficult. Any average server can direct you to these bottles. Ask your server for a good bottle at around $40 and see what they say. This is how you separate the amateurs from the professionals. A pro will have a couple to tell you about and not bat an eye.
Talk in terms of flavor
The flavor of the wine is the reason we buy the wine. I will concede that some might try a wine because “the label is pretty”. That is just fine as well. Some labels are, well, pretty. It would be a disservice to not place a little more weight on the wine itself when paying restaurant prices.
Know a few flavors that you like and know which varietals they occur in. If you like oak, know that a California Chardonnay will never let you down. If you like light and easy, you have to hover around the Pinot Grigio section of the list. Knowing what you like and what you want is a great way to find the deal, but to also help your server suggest wines for you.
Never be afraid to mention your budget
Your budget is one of the initial three questions that should be discussed. Prices vary greatly within a category of wine. This has always been the case. This is not a point to be dwelled on nor mentioned again by the person serving you the wine. It is mentioned as a social courtesy.
If you are at a table on a first date or a business meeting and you do not want your guests to know what your budget is, simply pick a wine that is in your budget and ask the server to describe it. Make sure you aim your index finger at the price. These subtle clues should be received loud and clear and you never have to actually say a number.
If the server only knows about wines well out of your budget, do not hesitate to ask for the sommelier or manager. If they can not help you, politely stand and walk to the door because if that is how they treat their beverage program, the chef is probably not going to cook your food properly either. Most of the profits in a restaurant are in beverage sales. Knowledge in this part of the business is a must and do not trust a place that takes it lightly.
Have fun with wine
The days of everyone sitting at the table with baited breath while the host swirls and sips the selected bottle are, and should be, long gone. When I see this in today’s world, I immediately think “what assholes”. Wine is meant to be fun. It is meant to make people smile. The service is meant to be interactive. I still sniff and swirl when I order a bottle, but I do it quickly and with a smile.
Given that approximately 97 percent of all the wines produced are meant to be consumed within three years of bottling, there is no reason to make this a heavy situation. Granted, there are times when formality is a must in order to service the craftsmanship of the wine. I have had some very tense moments serving wine that fall into the other 3 percent. Those are few and far between. Enjoy yourself when you are in a restaurant and ordering wine. It is like shopping. Find one you like that is a good deal.
I have worked for a lot of very successful restaurant people on an international level in my career. And these are things they taught me. I am not bold enough to make these things up on my own. Hospitality is the business, not food and drink. Granted food and beverages are the vehicle by which restaurants do business, but service can enhance or ruin either in a quick second. We, as patrons, set the tone for what we are in the mood for. Good restaurants and bars will give you what you came there for.