At first glance, a restaurant’s wine list may seem like a humbling experience. But fear not, there are ways to decipher this puzzle.
The easy answer? Ask a sommelier. The days of the intimidating, dismissive sommelier are long past. If you know your preferences and price range, the restaurant staff should be able to take good care of you.
However, many restaurants don’t have floor sommeliers or other wine staff working every shift. Smaller (and chain) restaurants often have lists that are managed off-site. They sometimes opt to educate servers in lieu of sommeliers, which can be hit or miss.
Maybe your pride, or anxiety, makes you reluctant to engage a sommelier, or you just need to find the best option at an Olive Garden.
Follow this cheat sheet to crack any wine list:
Check out the wine list online before you go.
Many good restaurants post wine lists (or “sample” lists that change frequently) on their web sites. Study early and impress your friends with your quick decision-making, so you can spend more time drinking and less time reading. Note: Wines are often listed in ascending order from lightest to heaviest.
“Glasses often have
the highest markup.”
With a huge list, utilize the table of contents or index.
Susanne Lerescu, who oversees more than 6,000 labels at Restaurant Latour in Hamburg, New Jersey, says an index “quickly tells the range of wines and the restaurant’s strengths, and you might get inspired from there, instead of getting lost in one category.” Having long lists available on tablets, she says, isn’t a gimmick. “It can allow you to sort and cross-reference by country, region and subregion, grape variety, [and] even price.”
Look for a “Sommelier’s List.”
Larger lists may have a much shorter “sommelier’s list,” designed to highlight the expert’s favorites, and be a mini cheat sheet built into the menu. “These lists can be full of value wines, interesting wines, personal favorites and older wines in a peak drinking window,” says Lerescu.
Glass vs. bottle?
A great glass list is a godsend if you seek variety, or when your party can’t agree on one wine. However, glasses often have the highest markups, can be chosen haphazardly and some restaurants may not store these wines well. Approach “quartinos” with skepticism. A third of a 750ml bottle, it’s either a nice compromise between a glass and bottle, or a sneaky upsell. Keep in mind when with larger groups, there are only four glasses to a bottle.
Don’t fret about pairing.
Dining out, you’re likely to enjoy multiple courses, each with multiple ingredients, for each member of your dinner party. Steak can be stellar with a Cab, but is it served with a rich garlic butter, vinegary gastrique or pungent Béarnaise? Don’t stress about it, but if you must…
…Some wines work across a wide range of dishes.
These “go with everything” wines tend to have higher acidity and moderate alcohol levels. For whites, these wines include Riesling, Albariño, Vinho Verde, Grüner Veltliner, and unoaked Chardonnay like village-level Chablis. For reds, Pinot Noir is a good fallback. Italian reds, especially Barbera d’Alba or d’Asti, Valpolicella Rosso, and Chianti are a safe choice.
If your party is divided between red and white, there’s always rosé. And though Champagne always goes with everything, if you’re on a budget, try Cava or crémant.
What To Do (and Not) When The Wine Comes
- Presenting the bottle isn’t just a formality. Servers may bring a different vintage, or the wine may have been listed incorrectly.
- You’re sampling the wine to see if it’s corked (it will smell like wet newspaper/cardboard) or otherwise faulty, not if you like it (glass pours being an exception). Such faults are more likely evident by smell than taste. Faulty wines are rare, but it’s more common for diners to miss these characteristics.
- In restaurants, reds are often served too warm, and whites too cold. Don’t hesitate to ask them to further chill a wine, or to let it sit at room temperature for a while before pouring.
- If they’re topping your wine off too quickly, ask them to slow down.
Lesser-known wines (usually) mean greater value.
Unfamiliar grapes or regions can bring high quality and a sense of discovery at a fair price. Most restaurants offer wines based on customer expectation, so these other gems are on the list because someone fell in love with them. Try something from Portugal, South Africa, Greece or Virginia. Also look for grapes like Sylvaner, Blaufränkisch, Mencía, Grignolino, Hárslevelü or other lesser-known names. And yet…
… Don’t count out established regions in your quest for value.
Regions with famed and pricey wines often also have terrific, less-heralded offerings. Examples include white Bordeaux, or Pinot Noir from Germany or Australia’s Adelaide Hills. There are always “value regions” within the well-known wine countries: Alsace and Languedoc-Roussillon in France; Puglia, Campania and Sardinia in Italy.
And look for your favorite varieties in less-obvious places. Robert Smith, who juggles more than 4,000 labels as wine director at three locations of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Texas, says “you’ll usually spend less on great examples of Bordeaux varieties [like Cabernet and Merlot] from Washington State than from Napa. Washington wines have a freshness and balance to them, and the reds age very well.”
Remember that value and price are very different things.
A great Cornas can be a terrific value, while there are cheaper wines best avoided. The wine with the least markup might be a lousy value, while an older wine that’s no longer in stores and carefully cellared for years may be the best value in town.
Don’t be a slave to vintages.
Smith says that some “challenging” vintages in major regions may produce wines that are less powerful, but can be terrific and food-friendly. “The wines from these cooler or challenging vintages usually have higher natural acidity and lower pH levels that allow them to often age more gracefully and longer than the riper, higher-scoring vintages,” he says.
Skip the second-cheapest bottle.
Everyone does that, so that’s often where you’ll find a bottle the restaurant is trying to get rid of. However, many wine directors take pride in the quality of their “cheapest” bottle, and markup can shrink as you move to higher price points.
Be aware of markup.
Markup, usually around three times wholesale price, varies by restaurant. It encompasses state laws and taxes, operating costs and other factors. However, if you find a great restaurant with minimal markup, sing it from the rooftops.
How to Pronounce Tongue-Twisting Wines (Agiorgitiko Included)
Know what you like, and be honest with yourself.
Grapes, regions and wine styles go in and out of fashion. It doesn’t mean they suit your palate or that one type is “better” than another. Having a clear idea of what you like puts you ahead of the vast majority of diners.
Order the Agiorgitiko.
“Don’t worry about mispronouncing a wine,” says Smith. “Never let that discourage you from ordering something you are interested in!”
Last Updated: May 4, 2023