Most people are just a little intimidated by ordering wine in a restaurant... it can be a high pressure moment if you're the designated orderer, especially if you're out entertaining for business, on a date, or trying to find the best budget bottle for your group! If your pulse starts quickening when you get a wine list presented to you, have no fear: these 3 sommelier tips make it totally easy and worry-free.
Somm Tip #1: Say What You Want To Spend
It sounds like a no-brainer, but practically nobody ever does it: tell your server how much you want to throw down for your bottle! The restaurant staff has no idea how to help you choose the right bottle for you unless they have this crucial info. The idea that the sommelier exists to up-sell you into spending half your paycheck on a bottle is a myth in today's wine world--- we are there to guide you to the best bottle for your budget, palate, and meal pairing. And make sure you have such an amazing experience that you can't wait to come back and visit again! And nothing helps us narrow down your options more efficiently than stating your price range--- right off the bat.
Lush Tip: If you don't want to say it out loud, simply point to a price on the wine list and say 'We'd like something in this range'. Done and done.
Somm Tip #2: Mention a Wine You Enjoy
It's not uncommon at a trendy/cutting edge restaurant today to open the wine list and see.... nothing that you recognize. Sometimes it seems like Wine Directors are all in a secret competition for who can compose the most obscure, random list ever (Mavrud from Bulgaria, anyone???). This can either be a kinda annoying exercise in trying to blindly choose something and seem cool and in-the-know about things like Slovenian Ribolla Gialla--- or, it can be a truly great opportunity to push the boundaries of your own palate and discover something totally new! Don't be shy about letting your server know what your 'standard' order is. Mention a grape variety, a region, or both ('I love Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand') and see what they suggest as a similar wine. Oregon Pinot lovers may discover a passion for Morgon from Beaujolais... I've seen it happen. Another great hack is to snap a pic of a bottle you enjoy and just pull out your phone and show it off to your somm. That one image can tell us wayyyy more about what you might like to drink than trying to describe your favorite wine. Sometimes a picture really is worth 1,000 words.
Somm Tip #3: Ask For A Food Pairing
When all else fails, you can always say, 'I'm having the lamb and my date is having the salmon- what would complement these dishes?' and go from there. A huge part of the restaurant wine experience is sipping on wines that have specifically been chosen to highlight the flavors of the chef's dishes--- I think it's part of the fun. Ask your server to provide recs based on your food order.
BONUS: HOW TO NAVIGATE THE TASTING RITUAL
Now that you've got the hard part out of the way--- the actual wine selection--- here's how to rock the whole tasting thing. Most people look like a deer in the headlights when we approach your table and present the bottle. No, you don't have to panic or perform some crazy ceremony. This is pretty simple and wayyy less pretentious than you think.
Step One: The Presentation
When we present the bottle, we just want you to look at the label and confirm that it's the bottle you ordered. Sometimes we grab the wrong bottle or misunderstand what you ordered. Just confirm that we got it right before you allow us to open it.
Step Two: The Cork
Your server will most likely place the cork in front of you once we pull it from the bottle (unless it's a screwcap- and more on that here.) Don't sniff it- it will smell like... cork. Just look at it. The reason for this is to authenticate the bottle. It should say the producer's name- back in the day, merchants might refill the bottle with house wine and re-cork it with a generic cork. If the cork is printed with the winery's name, you know it's legit!
Step Three: The Taste
Your server will pour you a taste. The only purpose of this is for you to determine if the wine is 'sound' (wine snob speak for 'not spoiled'). If it tastes like wet cardboard or musty newspapers, it's probably 'corked'. You also don't want it to taste overwhelmingly like vinegar or nail-polish remover. If it's bad, you can send it back! If it's perfectly fine and you just don't like it- well, that's a bit more complicated and you will need to negotiate with the restaurant the way forward on that one. If they recommended it and it's nothing like what you thought it would be, they will most likely offer to exchange it for something else, but- that's their call.
If You Love It- Say So!
Nothing makes my day more than hearing that I hit the bullseye with my recommendation! Let your server or sommelier know they did right by you- and if it's a fave spot, make friends with those that steer you in the right direction. We always keep our regulars in mind and the next time you come in, we'll probably have even more ideas of fun things for you to try!