Three Key Tips for Ordering Wine at a Restaurant

A sommelier is a trained professional in the art of wine and wine and food pairing. But while there are many connections in entertainment media between women and wine (see any episode of Scandal or Minnie Driver in Uncorked), there are few of us who reach professional status. Only about 15% of all sommeliers in the Americas are women. Assuming you are not one of those, here are three helpful tips for ordering wine at a restaurant:

There Is No Wrong Answer

The wine list at mid-range restaurants, such as Summer House, like any restaurant, organizes their offerings of glasses and bottles into wine types: Sparkling, White, Red, and the increasingly popular Rose. However, the order in which these wines are listed is not by flavor profile. Some restaurants list the wines in each group from sweet to dry or light to heavy, but do not always assume this is the case. It is completely acceptable to ask if this is how they are listed. If it is not, better have a backup plan.

If you don’t need to pair wine with food, it is more fun to look for something with complexity, such as a Viognier, a white full-bodied wine that does not have the buttery flavor of a Chardonnay. Nearly any red, other than Merlot, can be a sipping wine. The more interesting flavors will come from wines with a balanced blend ratio, meaning the grapes used are a combination of two or three different types. This information is not usually listed on the menu; however, Bordeaux is one of the most popular and uses: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec.

For Pete’s sake, drink what you like. When in doubt, champagne goes with everything.

Stereotypes Can Help

Nobody likes to be stereotyped, but when it comes to wine, it can be really useful.  Where you are from says a lot about what you are like, at least when it comes to wines. When looking at the wine list, if you do not recognize the label or brand of any of the wines, look next to the region in which it is produced. This information, in combination with the type of wine you are looking at, will provide additional clues.

This is way-over simplifying it, but it is the grape and the condition it is grown that provides the foundation for the flavor profile — but these do not determine the final taste, mainly because California screwed this all up by having such a variety of growing conditions.

Leave California wines to the explorers (or at least another blog post). If you want reliable flavor profile (I’m looking at you Starbucks regulars), then go with what you know. White and rose wines from France are going to leave a big impression on your mouth. White wines from Virginia are typically the closest thing to water that you can order off the menu. Either one is fine if that’s what you like. Some follow-up questions for the waiter might be to ask if the wine was made in oak or steel barrels as this will give you that buttery or minerally taste respectively.

Red wines from Australia, South Africa, and Oregon are remarkably consistent.  Pinot Noir from Oregon has a soft, light, fig-flavor to it.  Zinfandel from Australia can be really peppery.  Shiraz from South Africa can taste like blackberry fruit. If it tastes like vinegar, send it back.

When in doubt, champagne goes with everything.

Not All Wine Lists Are Created Equal

Most restaurants have a sommelier dedicated to building that wine list, but many do not. It is possible that none of the wines on the list are any good. Most of us are not willing to pay $14 a glass to find out. If you do not recognize any of the labels, and you can’t remember which region produces which flavor profile, you can safely order Merlot. I know, I just said never order Merlot, and that’s because it is a mixing grape. You use it to mix into other flavors to balance things out, kind of like vanilla. And that’s exactly what drinking it will be like, but hey, even vanilla doesn’t taste terrible.

If you want to assess the muster of a wine list quickly, jump down to the reds/blends and have a glance at the bubblies. If you see names like Stag’s Leap and Veuve Clicquot, someone is decent at picking out this list. If you see a lot of Coppola, Ravenswood, they might be playing it safe. Also, check out stemware. If the wine glasses are short and thick, they are not pouring finer wines. If they have different size/shape glasses for red than white, they probably have put some thought into their wine list and you should ask for their recommendation based on your preferred flavor profile.

Hopefully, this will encourage you to venture beyond the “house red” (unless you’re in Italy). There is so much to learn and enjoy, and no need to be intimidated in the process. If you do come across a wine you really enjoy, you can help yourself remember what it is by taking a photo of the bottle/label and posting it to your favorite social network with the appropriate hashtags (#redwine #love) and tagging the maker (@Ravenswood). That way, the next time you dine out, just remember to check out your own newsfeed; and before you know it, you’ll be trying out to be the next female sommelier!

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