7 Tips for Ordering the Perfect Glass of Wine

7 Tips for Ordering the Perfect Glass of Wine

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.

P.S. How to eat dinner and how to remember people’s names.

  1. This is such a good post. Being able to give the sommelier helpful information is such an important skill to ensure you enjoy your glass of wine – such an important thing :)

  2. Wine has always bewildered me! I’m not an alcohol drinker (hate the general taste) but always try to enjoy a glass of wine when the occasion calls for it. I’m usually clueless when it comes to all the varieties, regions, and jargon and 90% of the time I hate whatever I choose. In fact, whenever I hear women gushing about how much they LOVE wine, I’m like…really? These are by far the most helpful tips I’ve come across so far. They really dumb down the process in a good way. Can’t wait to try your approach the next time I’m out!

  3. Kate says...

    I usually ask for a dry, rocky white. It sounds weird but it gets the point across!

  4. Super helpful! I sometimes do feel like its an interrogation and then I just randomly pick something that I end up not liking haha Thanks for sharing!

  5. Celine says...

    Love that post! Thanks Erin for the great tips, I’ll definitely going to think about this next time I’ll order wine. And Joanna, I love the path Cup of Jo is taking! I’ve been following your blog for a few years now, and I always feel like coming back to it. You girls are the best!! Greetings from France

  6. I loved this post, as this is a topic that is really dear to me. In other words, I love wine. And not the sweet, limp boring kind, but the full-bodied dry oaky tanniny kind that costs an arm and a leg. I’m already in the process of downloading Delectable so I can store all those wine treasures that I come across in one place — random pics on my phone are a nightmare to find back to when I’m in the wineshop. Thanks for posting!

    Anett | Tall Girl’s Fashion

  7. Really interesting!
    I have found a red (Argentinian Malbec) & a white (Pinot Grigio) that I love & always stick to them if possible.
    Maybe I’ll try something new next time :)


    • Hannah says...

      Those are my faves too. You might also enjoy a crisp Sauvignon Blanc on a hot day…X

  8. Polly says...

    Thank you, this is a great post! I love learning more about wines and how to get what I like in low pressure ways. This was perfect, thanks Erin!

    • Erin Geiger Smith says...

      Thanks so much! So glad it was helpful. Honestly, I learned things, too, so I should also be thanking Allison.

  9. Hi Joanna,
    I’m really partial to reds and love a good cab or merlot . The pointing method is great! I do have a go to list though. A Cotes Du Rhone wine is usually a good choice (you don’t need the super pricey Châteauneuf-du-Pape, unless you are in a mood to splurge!) The Montalcinos is another one ( rosso is much cheaper than a brunello and still pretty good). My new favorite is the Malbec, great taste at great prices!

  10. Kate says...

    They key for me is knowing that ‘dry’ means the opposite of sweet :)

  11. Elizabeth says...

    I once read that an easy way to narrow down a list is to try to pick wines from regions your food is from. Risotto for example is northern Italian, so try to go for wines from Piedmont, Lombardy, etc…the idea being that food and wines developed in parallel with one another.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      such a good idea!

    • Jacque says...

      Love the thought, but now it’s sounding like a geography exam too! : S

  12. Great! I’m turning 21 soon and I don’t even know the first thing about how to find a glass of liquid bliss. Thanks, Jo!

  13. Oooh, what a great post! I’m such a total beginner with wines, and I definitely like the sweeter, fruitier stuff (no sophistication here!) This was a great introduction to ordering wine to complement the meal, thanks!!

  14. Johanna says...

    I go for a creamy and buttery taste -so that’s usually a Chardonnay. I don’t know anything about wines, but I know I like it white and buttery, so I go with that!

  15. CeeBee says...

    If I’m at the store, I always read the back label to see if it describes what it’s made from. If they are all things I like, it’s a good bet. At this point, I know that I only like reds and that I either want a Cab-Sav or a Tempranillo. It doesn’t matter to me what I’m eating. If I’m with a group that wants to share a bottle of white, I always cross my fingers that we can get the sparkling white or the prosecco. I actually think prosecco is a nice choice if it’s an option and you can’t make heads or tales out of the rest of the menu: never more than a champagne flute-full to drink if you end up not liking it, and it makes the meal feel festive even if you’re just sitting in Little Italy with some pizza.

  16. I narrow in on one that sounds like something I’d like no matter the price pt or region and I kindly ask for a sample! Ive sampled 1-2 wines before deciding on which! This helps me & them out because when I like it–keep em’ coming!

  17. I’ve noticed I usually like California wines (over years of blindly tasting). So when I go to a restaurant I start by looking at the reds and then if they are from California. After that I go for a fruity sounding one. It has become my own personal science.

  18. Downloading Delectable immediately!

    Thanks for this round up—I was speaking to my dad this weekend about the best questions to ask when choosing a wine. Neither of us is an aficionado, but we know what we like and we’re good at speaking up in trying to find that. It does make all the difference in the world.

  19. Jaclyn says...

    Someone else mentioned this too but I also recommend heading to your local wine store’s weekly tastings.
    They are usually informal enough that you have the opportunity to ask lots of questions about the wines you are drinking.

    I’m lucky in that I grew up with a dad who is a pretty die hard oenophile but unfortunately his refined tastes set me up for failure later in life when I had to start buying my own wines and realized that while I do enjoy Chardonnay, the ones I like are well out of my budget.

    Above all else, when it comes to wine, practice makes perfect. The more you drink, the more you know!

  20. I’ve found that the best way to try new wine is to say I was thinking of X wine because I’ve liked Pinot from Oregon before but I love to try something new or different too. Often times you can get something in your taste but from somewhere you’ve never tried before which is great. I love pairing wine with my food because it’s all about experimentation. There is no wrong answer just drink what you like with your meals and you’ll find perfect pairings as you go. This is helpful for restaurants where I usually start off with “I like all wine!”. Better to narrow it down a bit.

  21. yael steren says...

    I’m definitely not sophisticated with wine because usually I just ask for whatever is the sweetest! Lol. I actually love Moscato, which is technically a dessert wine, but I have no problem drinking it during the main meal as well!! xoxo yael

  22. Taylor says...

    Ha! I have never felt like more of a fraud than when we took some friends out to celebrate their anniversary in Sevilla and the waiter brought me wine to taste. I was 21 and had absolutely no idea what was happening or what I was supposed to do (smell it? swirl it?). Pretty sure I chose the second cheapest bottle…how funny that that’s such a universal experience :). Good to know some tricks so I don’t have to feel so clueless next time!

    • Lizzie says...

      Pro Tip – never order the 2nd cheapest! Its all about markup. Typically the 2nd to the cheapest for each varietal are the highest markups on the menu – which means you’re paying more for a less expensive wine. They do this b/c they know people don’t want to seem cheap by ordering the cheapest but aren’t sure what to order – so they go with the 2nd cheapest. If you’re not sure what to do – order the least expensive or ask for the house.

  23. Once, while dining at Café Boulud, my husband and I ordered the tasting menu along with a full-bodied cab. Well, the sommelier couldn’t have looked more disgruntled, since our meal was going to involve seafood. Oh well! We loved every sip and every bite. Don’t ever be afraid to go against conventional wine wisdom.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      on a similar note, my sister-in-law went to Da Silvano, the scene-y italian restaurant in the west village, and asked for cheese on her seafood pasta and they outright refused. haha she still talks about it!

  24. I’ve found it helpful that I frequent a local wine shop and try out their offerings on the weekend when they have tastings. It’s a win-win situation: I get to sample wines, usually buy one I like and keep it on my “future reference” list, and the person hosting the tasting gives great tips on origin, flavors, pairings, and the like. Tastings like this have helped me expand my understanding of great wines, and helped me narrow in on what I like and don’t like – and that in turn, has helped me skim a restaurant wine list with more confidence and success.

  25. june2 says...

    I rely on La Crema for white and any Oregon Pinot Noir for red and reliably enjoy the glass. But I love to ask for recommendations whenever possible because that’s how I come across amazing things I would never otherwise taste!

  26. Sidenote: would you recommend Narcissa? Heading to NYC in June, looking for restaurants (your NYC guide link is broken!).

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      ooh, fun! i’ve never been to narcissa, but erin likes it. a few of my favorite restaurants right now in the west village are buvette (go during “off” hours, the waits can be crazy), cafe cluny and frankies spuntino.

      here’s the link to the full NYC guide:

      thanks, kate!

    • Erin Geiger Smith says...

      I’ve recommended Narcissa to everyone coming to visit recently. The patio truly is one of my favorite places in NYC, and inside also feels festive but not stuffy. Food wise, there’s something for everyone. If you can’t get in there, I’d echo Cafe Cluny as one of my other favorites as well!

  27. Joanna, how do you get these gorgeous pictures? I kept staring at this one for a long while!!
    Erin, thank you for the great tips. The idea of relating foods you enjoy, like berries, apples or mushrooms to the wine you may prefer is new to me and made me have an eureka moment , ha!
    When we go out for pasta or hearty foods (here in Buenos Aires we have very good pasta due to our abundant Italian heritage) I order Malbec. It’s a red Argentine wine that I love! Especially by Nieto Senetiner.


    • Cristina says...


      Boy, do I miss those Malbec wines!! :) I miss Argentina in general but its wines and sweets…mmmm…I had a sneak peek at your website and I really enjoyed it! :)

      Besos from sunny Madrid

    • Cristina, I’m glad to hear you like Malbecs! I love all about Spain. My dad’s side is all Spanish (his father and mother are first Argentine generation) so we grew up loving natillas and other Spanish delicious dishes .
      Thank you so much for your comment on my website!

      Besos from autumnal Buenos Aires! :)

  28. ashley says...

    wines confuse me, and I even work in the food industry! moreover, i never know what word to single out when ordering a glass (which one is the varietal? which is the vineyard?), so when in doubt, i use the pointing method! works like a charm!

  29. this is actually super helpful.
    I love that she discussed the price point factor. i’ve always that the second cheapest bottle of wine is the worst deal, since no one wants to look like a cheapskate on a date. Is there any merit to that?

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      i’ve heard the same thing!! we will try to find out.

    • Lizzie says...

      100% true!!!

    • Erin Geiger Smith says...

      The second to cheapest is definitely a very popular choice! There appears to be some debate about how universal the more-than-usual-mark-up is, but it does happen. I’m told the more upscale the place is, the less likely to use this trick. But of course, most restaurants are going to price the wines as high as they can get away with, so it’s worth asking how the server feels about that particular wine, and ask if they’d suggest something else at close to the same price.

  30. Natalie says...

    This is such a wonderful and inclusive guide to picking a wine! It’s so inclusive and definitely bolsters my confidence to choose a good wine.

    Honestly, I feel like I never go wrong with a malbec or a tempranillo and rarely order a white wine… But when I do, a dry, buttery chardonnay is right up my alley. YUM!!

  31. I love the idea of asking your server how to describe the wine you did end up choosing. I’ve always had the hardest time with wine, even when I was a server. I would just memorize flash cards of wines and menu items they would complement. I was never able to pull out those tasting notes.