Going out to dinner with friends can easily become a big event—after agreeing to share a meal together, you’ll have to choose the cuisine, the restaurant, and whether to invite that one person everyone has been avoiding for a few weeks. The decisions don’t end there. Once you settle in at the restaurant, and everyone is enjoying themselves with craft cocktail in hand—except for that one jerk-off who’s doing the Whole 30—the inevitable happens. Someone asks the dreaded question: “Should we get a bottle of wine?”
Considering that you tried to order a Michelob Ultra as a pre-dinner aperitif, maybe you aren’t the best person to helm this project—but the wine list is touching your hand, and everyone has that same stink of fear on them. So you grab it, and your eyes glaze over as a light panic settles in. Choosing a wine for the table involves a level of snobbery that you don’t have, and what if you order something that doesn’t make any sense? Don’t worry! With a little know-how (and some outside help), you can navigate the wine list like a pro.
Wine lists are usually broken up into categories—hopefully, one of those categories looks vaguely familiar and you can cling to that. If not, just keep in mind the few basic red and white varietals seen on most menus:
- Cabernet: One of the world’s classic grapes. It shows up a ton as a single varietal in California wines, and is usually the main grape in Bordeaux-style blends. Cabernet tends to be more full-bodied with dark fruit flavors, and pairs well heavier items, such as steak, lamb and duck. It’s the no-brainer choice if you’re at a steakhouse.
- Zinfandel: Known as California’s grape, Zinfandel can range from jammy, with a little bit of residual sugar, to peppery and full-bodied. Look for “Old Vine” bottles if you can afford it. These also pair super well with meat, but will see you through to dessert.
- Chardonnay: This is the white wine your mom drinks. Most California varieties are oak-aged and therefore very buttery and full-bodied, so they can be a little overwhelming, but this is a wine that will pair well with a lot of dishes—from ripe cheeses to seafood to pasta—especially if you have someone at the table (your mom) who refuses to drink red wine.
- Riesling: This is growing in popularity on a lot of menus—it’s so much more than that blue bottle of sweet garbage that your aunt buys at Wal-Mart. From crisp and dry to wonderfully fruity, Riesling is insanely dynamic. Light Alsatian rieslings pair well with fresh, farm-to-table dishes, while a drier, more acidic German trocken riesling is amazing with spicy Asian or Indian food.
If the list isn’t broken down into specific categories, the best thing to do is to look at how it’s organized. Usually, a wine list is organized in one of two ways, within the red and white wine verticals: by price (in which case, pick the third-cheapest bottle of wine and go), or what’s known as a progressive list. A progressive list means that wines are organized by lightest and sweetest at the top, going all the way down to fullest and driest and biggest at the bottom. This makes things pretty simple, because if you know what you like flavor-wise, you can hew to one end of the list or the other and be pretty sure it’ll be okay.
Pinot Noir is lighter-bodied, tends on the easy-drinking side, and it’ll please both those who insist on red wine and those who aren’t big fans of it, as well as pairing really well with most foods, from cheese and charcuterie to fish and steak. Oregon Pinots tend toward the lighter, more elegant side, with earthy, soft notes, while California Pinots tend to be fuller-bodied and have more jammy fruit notes. As with all things wine, though, your mileage may vary. Most restaurants, especially steakhouses, are going to have a more Cabernet-heavy list, but perusing the more unique sections of any wine list can uncover some hidden gems if you’re looking for them.
If you’ve been staring at the wine list for an embarrassingly long amount of time and still have no idea what to order, ask your server! That’s kind of what they’re there for. A fun game to play at really ritzy places is to ask your server for their recommendation and watch them try with every fiber of their being not to just point to the most expensive bottle on the menu. And then watch their brain short circuit when you ask them what Pinot Noir they’d recommend.
Even if they don’t know the ins and outs of every wine on the list, a good server will always have a shortlist of wines they know and recommend in various price ranges, depending on how much you want to spend—which is totally okay (and preferred!) to be upfront about. A great server will go and ask whoever put the wine list together (the chef, sommelier or manager) for their recommendations based on what you ordered. It’s always nice to ask your server what they like (and then choose that!), since they probably drink a lot to dull the pain of people asking for ketchup to put on $60 steaks.
If you’re in the type of restaurant with a sommelier—usually the person with the purple teeth—they can always guide you through the menu, chat about wine pairings and make very specific recommendations based on the food you ordered or what you know you like. Sommeliers have a reputation for being pretentious, but a lot of them are big old nerds who are just really excited to share their wine knowledge and love with anyone who will listen. (They also might be a little drunk, depending on how many “wine tastings” they’ve had that day.)
Okay, so you finally fucking chose a bottle of wine. Unfortunately, the ignominy isn’t over yet. Now comes the wine presentation. It’s a whole thing—sorry—but it’ll be over quick. Generally, the person who ordered the wine is the one who does the tasting at the table. If you ordered the wine, but someone else actually picked it out, it’s totally cool to foist the responsibility of the whole thing onto the person who did the choosing.
First, your server is going to roll over with glasses and a linen draped over their arm like Basil Fawlty. Then they’ll present the bottle to you by holding it in front of you. No one—especially not your server—expects you to give more than a passing glance at the bottle and smile and nod, most likely because you’re ordering something you’ve never seen before. At the very least, make sure that it’s not a bottle of white when you ordered a bottle of red. Then your server will futz with the foil and try to make light conversation. If you’re with a large party, it’s cool to ignore your server during this trying time, but if it’s just two of you, sitting there silently while the wine opener squeaks into the cork is just going to make everything awkward for everyone. Laugh at your server’s jokes and it’ll all be over quicker.
Next, your server will present you with the cork. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DO NOT SNIFF THE CORK. Sniffing the cork will tell you nothing about the cork, or the bottle of wine. It will only tell the people around you who know what they are doing that you are a dingus. Just pick it up, smile and nod (again), and set it aside. If the wine is bad (it isn’t 1964, we know how to preserve and ship wine now, it’s not bad, I swear), you will determine that when you taste it anyway.
If the wine isn’t more than 10 years old—seeing that you are currently seeking advice on how to order wine, it probably isn’t—don’t ask your server to decant it. That’s not going to do anything, and it’s just more time spent on this whole fucking enterprise that you could be using to get drunk. It also doesn’t need to be uncorked when you’re eating your salad and sit on the table “opening up” until your entrees come. Again, that does nothing more than make you look like a giant dingus.
After the cork presentation, your server will pour a taste into your glass. It’s totally acceptable to swirl it—to let the wine get introduced to a little bit of air and open up a bit. Then stick your nose in the glass and sniff. No one’s taking notes, so as long as it doesn’t smell like vinegar, it should be fine. It should at least smell, you know, nice. Like wine. Then, taste it. It should taste good! You should like how it tastes! Then you say, “Yeah, tastes great! Thanks for the recommendation!” Then your server will pour wine into everyone’s glass (yours last, it’s not personal) and leave. The hard part is now over, and you can drink the wine you ordered and feel accomplished.
Don’t be that guy and drag the bottle over to the farthest edge of the table so only you can pour refills (because chivalry isn’t dead or something). Let your server do their job and refill your glass. Sometimes a server will wait until a patron’s glass is empty so they don’t mix old wine with the new wine from the bottle, and so they can enjoy a glass to its fullest when it’s nearer to the end and the flavor is more open. Sometimes your server just forgot about you. (Sorry.) This is a weird dance. Don’t be a jerk if they don’t fill the glass fast enough for you, or if you have to pour your refill. The whole point of this thing is to enjoy yourself! I think.
Rachael Oehring is a freelance writer and is currently studying to become a sommelier.