I used to be very intimidated when ordering wine at a restaurant, especially any fancy joint with a long wine list. After several years of wine travel, living in Sonoma, and earning an official wine certification, I've finally mastered the dreaded wine ordering process.
But you shouldn't have to get formal training to feel at ease with ordering outside your comfort zone. So take to heart my core message:
IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT!
Really. Go easy on yourself... It's. Not. Your. Fault. The difficulty and intimidation felt when ordering wine is the fault of the restaurant and their service staff. Most establishments in which I've dined go about their wine service entirely wrong. Even in some restaurants with a full-time, trained sommelier, the wine ordering process is an abysmal failure.
Guests are never given enough time to consider the wine list. The server requests a drink order far too quickly and then promptly confiscates the wine menu. Aforementioned server rarely knows a darn thing about wine. If they call for backup from a sommelier, that individual heaps on the discomfort by speaking in industry jargon and suggesting the second-most expensive bottle on the list.
I've developed a surefire strategy to confidently order wine, make your dining experience smoother, and feel like a boss doing so. No matter your level of wine knowledge, even if you're a self-proclaimed expert, this strategy will win.
Here Are My Tricks
#1 - Accept the fact that wine in restaurants is absurdly expensive.
The bar is more profitable than the kitchen. This is common industry knowledge. Restaurants rely on profits from alcohol sales to subsidize the food prep, so the drink margins are larger. Also, a fully-stocked bar and deep wine list is a pricey inventory to keep provisioned. Therefore, bottles of wine are priced at 2-3 times retail cost. Here's a secret: wine-by-the-glass is usually priced at the wholesale cost of the whole bottle! So that $40 bottle of Chardonnay which costs you $8 by-the-glass... costs the restaurant $8. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but accepting this reality will make you more comfortable ordering wine.
#2 - Do a bit of research prior to dinner.
These days, you always read the online menu before choosing a restaurant, right? Well, take an extra minute to peruse the wine list if they also have it posted. Just as you know which dishes are immediately enticing, certain wines will jump out at you. If the list is obscure or concentrated to one region about which you know very little, such as the wines of Croatia, you'll know to ask for guidance. (What the heck is Plavac Mali?!) You'll also get a feel for the value of the wines and will be prepared to spend accordingly.
Furthermore, consider the wine preferences of your fellow diners. If they aren't old friends, you may not know what wines they like, whether they are willing to split the cost, or if expensive wines make them uncomfortable. Before or immediately upon your arrival to the restaurant, and ask your companions whether they will partake in the wine and if they have any general preferences/aversions. It's the courteous thing to do.
#3 - Consider bringing your own wine.
Outside of wine-producing regions, this isn't a very common practice. But if the wine list is complete garbage, consider bringing your own bottle of wine. How can the untrained eye judge if the restaurant wine list is terrible? If you can recall seeing the majority of the brands for sale at your supermarket, then the list is an insult to fine dining. Feel free to bring your own bottle, which the restaurant will charge a corkage fee to serve to you. (Usually $15-30). If the corkage policy isn't explicitly listed on their website menu, then call ahead and ask. Be warned: it's incredibly tacky to bring a wine which is featured on the wine list, and doing so may even be prohibited by the restaurant.
On the other hand, if you're celebrating a special event and want to bring your favorite wine despite the fact that the wine list is great, go for it. Just be sure to order pre- or post-dinner drinks from the menu. The restaurant will appreciate that, and if you also buy a bottle of wine off the menu, they just may waive the corkage fee.
#4 - Elect a wine delegate.
When you sit down in a dining group of 2-6 people, designate one person to order the wines by the bottle. (Larger groups are a whole different ballgame.) Etiquette-wise, first right of refusal should go to the individual who chose the restaurant or can reasonably be considered the "host". Otherwise, nominate the person perceived to have the most wine knowledge. They'll not only feel honored to choose the wine, they'll enjoy doing so.
#5 - Pick your meal first.
There’s nothing I hate more than a waiter handing me an extensive wine list and then returning for my drink order less than five minutes later. Set the wine list aside unless you have something very specific in mind (or if you already chose your bottle per Trick #2). First select your meals, then go back to the wine list. If you want an aperitif drink while deliberating, get a cocktail or a glass of bubbly to start. You can then order your bottle of wine after you place your food order.
This restructuring of the ordering process will allow you time to consider food and wine pairing based upon the table's dishes. It'll also take the pressure off your table mates to make a selection compliant with your wine choice.
#6 - Confidently say how much you are willing to spend on a bottle.
It’s okay to get the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu if that’s what you want to drink. Per Trick #1, you've already come to grips with the reality that restaurant wine is overpriced. But don't be a cheapskate who settles for the cheapest bottle no matter what. If you've enlisted the help of the server or sommelier, confidently give them some price guidance. Don't be embarrassed if your budget is on the low end. Giving your sommelier wine style criteria without a budget range is certain to end in a costly suggestion. Be proud of the fact that most occasions don't call for an expensive wine.
#7 - State what you like.
Asking a sommelier for a random wine recommendation is as bewildering as asking a department store clerk for underwear recommendations: they can't tell what you have on and have no frame of reference for what you'd like.
If you have a favorite wine you drink each week, tell them that. If you're out for a special occasion, inform them of the best wine you've ever had. And if there is a type of wine that totally disgusts you, reveal that, too.
These points of reference will be incredibly instructive to landing on the perfect wine for the night.
#8 - Ask questions.
Have you never heard of Mencia from Ribeira Sacra? Don't know the difference between Riesling Kabinett and Riesling Auslese? Have no idea where Taurasi or Minervois are located, or what grape varieties they contain?
No problem! If the server/sommelier suggests a wine from an unknown place or a varietal you've never heard of, just ask about it!
Don't be shy to admit you know nothing about the wine or place. Give them an opportunity to educate you. And then, don't just settle for the facts. Ask the server why they are suggesting the wine and what makes it great. If they can answer those questions with certainty and without condescension, then they've demonstrated their excellent wine service training. Trust their advice and try something new!
If they can't answer those simple questions, then they've proven they are inadequately trained and don't know an iota more than you about wine! Perhaps they should go back to working at Applebee's, where "House Red" and "House White" are as complicated as it gets.
Now make that reservation, dominate that wine list, and enjoy your night out!
I have a confession. I've been drinking more white wine over the last couple years. Here's why you should too.
#1. White wines are more versatile.
As a whole, red wines are not a very versatile beverage. Drinking a full-bodied red wine outside on a hot day is downright unpleasant. When you want to truly be refreshed (and simultaneously get a buzz), white wine is your best bet. Most whites are ideally consumed between 40° to 55° F , which is a few minutes out of the fridge, but many full-bodied whites are delicious at room temperature.
Also, how many times have you been to a fancy party and had a few glasses of red, only to see horrendous wine teeth in your photos the next day? That was me at my wedding rehearsal dinner... Spiffed up in a nice suit, grinning like a grape vampire, unknowingly ruining every photo. Conveniently, my toothy tint matched my purple Brooks Brothers tie.
Finally, because most white wines are not fermented for extended periods on grape skins, they don't have a lot of tannin, which red wines do. Tannins are the compounds which dry out your mouth and stick to your tongue, cheeks, and teeth. You need fats from food, usually meats, to counteract the drying effect of tannic red wine. But many white wines don't need to be paired with food to be enjoyed at their prime. Feel free to drink it by itself!
Hyper-chilled or room temp. By the pool or at a fancy event. With or without food. White wine can do it all.
#2. White wines pair better with most foods.
Speaking of food, white wine is a better pairing for the majority of what you eat. We all know white wine and seafood go hand in hand, but it goes with so much more. There are a few reasons why. First, red wine tannins are bitter. Certain foods, like vegetables, can accentuate that bitterness making for an unpleasant pairing. Animal fats best offset tannins, so red wines are traditionally paired with red meats to balance them out. But why are you only drinking white with surf and red with turf? The type of meat doesn't prevent you from pairing it with a white wine. The best pairings are based upon the texture, flavors, and spices of a dish anyways. Focus on these factors when you pair and forget the unwritten red rule.
Second, white wines usually have a higher acid content and lower pH than red wines. Strong acidity in wine (tartaric and malic acid in white wines) is the ultimate attribute which makes wine a good complement for food. Acidity cuts through food traits like spiciness and fat, bringing the dish more into balance. Also, highly acidic wines are just plain refreshing. They cleanse your palate and make you feel all zesty. There's a simple reason why Hooters wings and Dom Perignon is a classic pairing: Champagne is very acidic.
Third, alcohol doesn't play nicely with spicy foods. Since white wines usually contain less alcohol than red wines, they will be less likely to enhance the heat of spiciness. (Sidebar: the French call this type of heat piquant, which is a lot less confusing than calling a food hot). A big, bold Petite Sirah isn't doing your three-alarm chili any favors. The robust tannins and 15+% alcohol content will ensure that piquant is the only thing you taste. Truly, an ice-cold beer is the best pairing for chili, but a chilled Chenin Blanc would be nice, too.
#3. White wines cost less.
If we're being honest with each other, this is a REALLY important factor. Don't go broke drinking high-dollar red wines every night. Make white wines your "daily drinker" and save a bundle.
There are several reasons white wines cost less than reds. Generally, less oak is used in the making of white wine. If a white is fermented or aged in a barrel, it's often a previously used barrel which imparts no oak flavor. Premium red wines are primarily aged in brand new oak barrels. A high quality new French oak barrel costs around $2,000, which translates to about $6 per bottle of wine! By employing used barrels or none at all, that amounts to serious savings.
One key to white wine's affordability is the faster time to market. Red wines are barrel aged for 6 to 24 months to soften the tannins. After that, some producers let them sit in a bottle for a couple more years before releasing them for sale. (The purpose again is to give them time to soften.) White wine is usually aged less than 6 months in steel or concrete tanks and released soon after bottling. The faster time to market equates to fewer storage costs and immediate revenue.
Another thing that keeps white wine prices low is that there's less demand for them than red wines. The Cabernets and Pinots of the world get all the press coverage and glamour. Of course, there are exceptions like some white Burgundies and California Chardonnays. But broadly speaking, you can buy some killer quality white wines from world famous producers for half the cost of their reds.
#4. There are lots and lots of varieties to try.
The White Wine Universe doesn't consist of just Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Moscato, and Pinot Grigio. These are the most common types you'll find on the supermarket shelf, but they can be among the most mundane options. Here are several recommendations for expanding your horizons:
Viognier - Vee-uhn-yay - A silky, aromatic varietal from the southeastern Rhone area of France. It's full bodied, sometimes has an oily texture, and smells like fresh flowers and apricots. A more interesting substitute for Chardonnay. Lots of American wineries in CA, OR, and VA are getting into Viognier.
Chenin Blanc - The main white grape of western France's Loire Valley, it's also the signature white of South Africa. Delightfully zesty with with citrus and tropical fruit flavors, sometimes even grassy herbs. Great with sweet/sour foods.
Riesling - It's the legend of Germany and eastern France's Alsace region. Comes in a wide range of sweetness levels, from totally dry to dessert wine. High acid; apple, citrus, and peach aromas, sometimes a unique petroleum scent. Can be a very simple or complex wine. Perfect pairing wine for Asian foods.
Grüner Veltliner - Austria's main wine grape. It's almost always spritely and dry, with lime and white pepper notes. A great alternative to Sauvignon Blanc.
Muscadet - One of my favorite white wines. From the Loire, Moo-skuh-day is the wine style's name, the grape is actually Melon de Bourgogne. This wine is super dry and not very fruity. It's the ultimate seafood wine, particularly for oysters, due to its high acidity and creamy texture. That texture comes from extended aging on the lees - the dead yeast cells which impart a bready taste. This technique also gives Champagne its toasty signature.
Soave - Swaah-vay. As sexy to say as it is to drink. This wine from northeastern Italy is made from Garganega grapes. It's super aromatic; you can smell it across the room. Melon, orange zest, and almonds. Quality Soaves are usually under $20.
Albariño - Juicy melon, lemon, and grapefruit are the key notes of this light-bodied white from northwestern Spain and bordering Portugal. Easy to find tasty versions around $10.
Godello - Another Spanish grape, from the same area as Albariño. More full-bodied and rich, with refreshing acidity, lemon and pineapple. A totally lovely wine.
Grenache Blanc - This mutation of black Grenache is found in many areas of France and Spain, and is gaining popularity in California. In Europe, it's usually blended with other Rhone varietals like Viognier, Roussane, and Marsanne. Sometimes you can find a single varietal Grenache Blanc in California. Medium bodied with lime, green apple, and pear.
Pinot Blanc - Also called Pinot Bianco and Weissburgunder, this genetic mutation of Pinot Noir is widely planted in eastern France, northern Italy, and southern Austria. Medium to full-bodied, lower acidity, pear, apple, floral, and nutty characteristics. Like a Chardonnay, but different.
Arneis - This is an obscure grape from Piedmont, northwestern Italy. The name translates to "little rascal" for its difficulty to grow, but makes an awesome wine. It's just starting to pop up in California and Oregon. Alluring aromas of ripe pears, peaches, and almonds. If you can find Arneis, grab it all.
Sémillon - This grape has the funk. Semillon has a certain musky waxiness to it which some love and some hate. Very rarely is it bottled alone. Traditionally in Bordeaux, it's blended with Sauvignon Blanc, and is also a main component of the famous Sauternes dessert wine. When grown in hot areas, like Australia's Hunter Valley, it loses that funk and is pretty tropical.
Gewürztraminer - Geh-vurtz-trah-mee-na - Don't embarrass yourself trying to say this word to a Frenchman, as I did. No matter how correctly you think you're pronouncing it, you're wrong. Just point at the wine list when you order. This perfumed Alsatian wine's prime note is the tropical fruit lychee, also with grapefruit, peach, and cantaloupe. Another great pair for Asian foods like Thai curry.
Marsanne/Roussane - I mention these two varieties together because they're almost always blended. Marsanne has a distinct almond paste characteristic and is oily, while Roussane balances that with pear, honey, apricot, and more acid. It's a traditional blended wine of the Northern Rhone Valley.
Assyrtiko - A widely popular Greek wine, best from Santorini. It's light, citrusy, and minerally. Great wine on a hot day, pretending you're cruising the Greek isles.
Furmint - A native Hungarian grape used in the production of their famed sweet dessert wine Tokaji (Toke-eye). When it's made dry, it's a crisp wine with apple, peach, and lemon notes. Dry Furmint is not easy to find, but don't hesitate to buy it if you do.
What are you waiting for? Get out there and proudly flaunt that vino blanco!
P.S. - Thought one of my factors was going to be the whole masculine vs feminine debate? That white wine is for women and red wine is for men?
Maybe that stereotype and gross oversimplification held water a generation ago, but these days I see just as many women declaring they only drink reds. Everyone needs to reexamine their relationship with white wine.
And if you're a man who doesn't want to be seen with a glass of white or pink wine in his hand, get over it. You're missing out.
Other non-travel ramblings on wine and business.