Even if you love wine, choosing one at a restaurant can be challenging. With a long wine list in front of you and your tablemates eavesdropping, your server may suddenly seem like more of an exam administrator than a resource. But, it doesn’t have to be that way! Cup of Jo drinks contributor, Erin Geiger Smith, rounded up the best tips for confidently ordering a glass of wine you’ll love…
The last time I went to Narcissa in the East Village — its patio has the prettiest lighting in New York — I asked the sommelier to bring me “something sparkling that I’ll like.” Meanwhile, my friend nerdily grilled her on the terroir of particular varietals. (Or something like that, I’m not fluent in wine-speak.)
That moment got me wondering: What is the happy medium between being the person who looks aimlessly at a wine list and being the person who knows everything about wine? Getting a glass you really like — not too acidic, not too sweet, but just right for your mood and your meal – shouldn’t be hard. And, it’s so worth it when you do. After all, wine is expensive, and when you pick a good one, it can make everything about your lunch or dinner click. You should savor it as much as your food.
So, I asked the Narcissa sommelier, Allison Whittinghill, to share the basics a person should know to get a glass they’ll truly enjoy.
For starters, Allison suggests asking how the wine list is organized so you can easily identify what you’re looking for. Restaurants and bars do it all different ways — by type, region, cheapest to most expensive, light-bodied to full, even by the owner’s weird whims. It’s not always clear.
If you’re not sure where to go from there, don’t worry. Picking a wine is a no-question-is-a-dumb-one situation, Allison swears. It’s her job to know the wine and any clue to your taste buds are helpful. Hate buttery chardonnay? Say so. Love Granny Smith apples? It’ll help her get you the right drink, so don’t be afraid to ask questions and state your preferences.
Choosing a wine is like a really fun multiple choice test, Allison says, where your preferences are the right answers. Here are the main questions to consider:
Red, white or sparking? (Or maybe all rosé, all the time?) Start by picking one of these general categories, based on what you’ve enjoyed in the past, and tell your server.
$ or $$ or $$$? Allison loves it when people name their price, and promises there’s something delicious on any list at a lower price point. If someone is on a date and Allison senses they don’t want to share their dollar limit out loud, she points to a price on their menu and asks if they’re interested in something “like this.” If you feel awkward saying you want the bargain offering, steal that trick: point to it.
Light, medium or full-bodied? The bigger-bodied the wine, the “heavier” it feels in your mouth. Do you like that sensation? Say so. Wine Folly has this great breakdown of where different wines fall on the scale of light to full. For example, as their list notes, if you like a light-bodied red, ordering a pinot noir is a safe bet. But, take note: generally, the heavier the wine, the higher the alcohol content and the more it goes to your head.
What flavors do you like? Something earthy like mushrooms? Something with fruit notes? Berries, or do you prefer citrus? Allison suggests saying what type of flavors you generally gravitate toward. Wine flavors tend to fall into three categories: fruit, flower/herb and a harder-to-define “other” bucket that can include anything from caramel to tobacco. Think about the wines you’ve enjoyed before and be as specific as possible so you server can match your tastes with the right wine. (Here are more tips on wine flavors.)
What food are you ordering? While many wine drinkers no longer stick to old-school rules like only white wine with fish or only red wine with meat, the restaurants’ wait staff knows the menu and what wines best complement it. Tell your server which food categories you’re gravitating toward.
What’s special? If you’ve got a hankering for something novel, try a wine from an unexpected location. Vineyards that are located off the beaten path often have a good story behind them and are sometimes less costly, Allison says. If you like Sauvignon Blanc, for example, your sommelier might suggest a Riesling from Austria. Rosé lovers might see one from the Canary Islands on the list. Ask them to help you find a special choice.
One final tip: If you liked the wine you had, jot down its name or snap a photo of the label. There are even apps for that, like Delectable, which stores your wine label photos and provides ratings and other information about what you’ve tried. Also, ask your server to give you some tips on how to describe a wine you enjoyed. That will help you understand, the next time around, how that formal wine language translated to your taste buds.
What do you normally order at a restaurant? Any tricks for choosing a wine from the list? We’d love to hear…
This post is part of a new series about wine and cocktails by Erin Geiger Smith.
(Photo by Irving Penn for Vogue)