Don't Miss These Great Wine Ordering Tips!!
Written By Wine Expert Kurt Gunkel - Masciarelli Wines
It’s all about personal taste.
There are only two kinds of wine: wine you like and wine
you don’t. The enjoyment of wine, like food, is very personal
and subjective. Ask a dozen people what toppings they
like on their pizza and you are likely to get twelve different
Okay, you’re hosting a dinner at Chez Expensive and need
to select wine for the table. You have some experience with
wine, maybe not a lot, but you have a vague idea of what you
like. You open the lengthy wine list, scan the 400 or so wines
and don’t recognize any of them. How are you possibly going
to make a decision?
Well, you basically have three options:
 read the wine
list from right to left and choose by price (uh, not a good idea);
 ask your guests if anyone would like to select the wine
(unless there’s a wine geek at the table, it’ll be up to you); and
 by far the best option, engage your server/sommelier.
Any good restaurant with a comprehensive wine list will
have a sommelier or wine director on staff. They are the most
underutilized resource in many restaurants. These wine gurus
are not only well educated but are also passionate about wine.
They have put much effort into selecting wines for the list to
complement the chef ’s menu and have intimate knowledge
of each bottle. They are like little kids who can’t wait to show
off their new toys. They respond well to people who appreciate
their work and express genuine interest. Don’t be shy.
Ask them lots of questions. “Do you personally taste all the
wines on the list? Do you have any favorites? What do you
Every wine list will reveal something about the sommelier’s
personality. It might focus on small loire producers, or have a
great Riesling selection, or feature some interesting Oregon
Pinot Noirs. This is where his passion lies. Ask about these. If
you’re someone with limited wine exposure, you can learn a lot
from these guys.
When selecting the wine for dinner you need to provide
the sommelier with as much information as possible to come
away with a bottle (or bottles) you will enjoy at a price you feel
comfortable paying. What is everyone ordering? Will you be
having wine with the appetizer course as well as dinner? Do
you want red or white? How about starting off with champagne
or sparkling wine? Have you had a wine recently that
you really enjoyed? Maybe he can suggest something similar.
Discreetly let the sommelier know your price range. A good
trick is when engaging the sommelier, point to a wine on the
menu in your price range, or mention a wine that you like in
your price range. The sommelier will take your lead and make
a few recommendations. He should explain why he chose the
wine and why it meets your criteria. Then it’s up to you. Make
your selection and get ready for the wine presentation ritual.
To the uninitiated, this little ritual can seem pretentious,
but it really does serve a valuable purpose; you need to make
sure the wine is in good condition. To start, the sommelier
presents you with the unopened bottle. Check the label to
make sure it is the wine you ordered, paying close attention to
the vineyard, if specified, and the vintage. The vintage and
vineyard designation can affect the quality and price of the
wine so if either is wrong, ask for the correct bottle. If they
don’t have what you ordered, make sure you are happy with the
price and the new selection. If not, order a different wine.
The server will then open the bottle and place the cork on
the table. You can choose to ignore it. It really doesn’t tell you
much. The smell and taste of the wine tells you everything.
A small amount of wine is then poured into your glass.
You are looking for four things: color, clarity, smell, and taste.
Hold the glass up against a white background (tablecloth or
menu page). Is the color okay? If the wine is cloudy or there
are particles floating, the wine could have problems. If it is an
older vintage, it might be sediment and should be decanted
and reevaluated. If it is a young wine, there is something wrong
and it should be sent back and a different wine, not another
If the color is okay and the wine is clear, it is time to start
swirling. Swirling the wine releases what is called the “bouquet.”
Hold the bottom of the stem at the base of the glass and
make small circles with the glass on the table. (Go easy, or you
may end up ruining your new RVR tie!) With the wine still
swirling, bring the glass to your face, stick your nose way in the
glass, and take a good whiff. It may seem a little weird at first,
but you’ll get used to it. What you are looking for are any off
odors. If you detect a musty, moldy, wet cardboard-like smell,
the wine is corked. This is the most common fault in a wine
and is caused by a bad cork contaminating the wine. This happens
in about one out of every thirty bottles. If you smell this,
send it back. Another bottle of the same wine should be fine.
If you smell any other off-putting aromas from the wine, have
the sommelier check it and give his opinion.
If the wine passes the smell test, it is probably okay. Taste
anyway for good measure. Remember, you are tasting the wine
to determine if it has any faults, not if you like it. The only
reason you should send back a bottle at this point is if the
sommelier misrepresented the qualities of the wine—for
example, the wine is full bodied and tannic and you had asked
for something lighter and fruitier.
A good restaurant should never give you a hard time sending a bottle back. Once you
have tasted the wine and determine it is not faulty, a simple
nod or “It’s fine” will let the server know to start pouring. The
server will then fill your guests’ glasses first and finish with
yours. This ritual should be performed with each bottle
Having a discussion with the sommelier at your table is
fine for social gatherings but a business dinner may require a
different approach. If you are hosting clients or colleagues, you
are there to get something accomplished not learn about wine.
Selecting the wine should be unobtrusive. Ask the restaurant
to e-mail you their current wine list in advance. Then call the
wine director, explain what you are doing, and discuss the selections
over the phone. Consider this part of your meeting
preparation. If you don’t have to time to do it in advance, try
to get to the restaurant early and arrange it with the sommelier.
That way when your guests are seated, you order the wine and
get on with business.
There are some basic guidelines—not rules—you might
want to consider in the absence of knowledgeable waitstaff or
a sommelier. The better values are often found in the midprice
range of the wine list. The least expensive and the most
expensive wines commonly carry the highest markup. Regional
wines will usually go well with regional foods.
Wine should complement the food. Typically you will want to
match lighter foods with lighter wines and heavier foods with
heavier wines. You don’t want the wine to overpower the food
or the food to overpower the wine. You want the flavors of the
food and wine to play nicely together.
Apart from that, it’s all about your personal taste.
Wine is an adventure. Go forth, drink, and enjoy.