Restaurant Wine Lists

5 Tips for Ordering Like a Pro

 


Restaurant wine lists can be intimidating, but navigating the wine list is actually pretty simple. With a just a few easy tips you can learn to order the perfect wine for your meal off any restaurant wine list.

The best way to make sure you get what you want from the wine list is knowing what you want. A little wine knowledge can go a long way towards helping you navigate any restaurant wine list. Take the time to learn the basics types of wine, and sharpen your skills by taking note of pairings that work for your palate, as well as those that make you want to retch! There are a few tricks worth knowing about many, if not most, restaurant wine lists. Stick with these and you'll be drinking like royalty!

1.) The lowest-priced wines on a restaurant wine list tend to have the highest mark-ups. What does that matter? Not terribly much, except for the fact that as far as values go, they can frequently be dogs.
2.) The highest priced wines on a restaurant wine list also tend to have higher than average mark-ups, making them less-than-attractive buys, and even worse - they tend to sit around on the list for long periods of time awaiting the one show-off who has more money than brains. If the restaurant doesn’t have good storage, you could end up paying a big premium for a less than pristine bottle. Woof!

3.) Every restaurant has a different approach to wine mark-ups for the wine list, so it’s difficult to really recommend what price point to buy wines at, but anecdotally, from my experience, I have found that the best deals are frequently the wines priced at about three times that restaurant’s average entrée price. Of course sometimes the wine list starts well above that price point, which is why God gave us beer.

4.) Some, but not all or even most restaurants train their staff well or even have a sommelier to help you choose your wine off the wine list. If the wine list you’re looking is hand-written and changes almost daily or require a briefcase for transport, chances are the folks there know what the hot buys are. They are trained for a reason, take advantage of their knowledge! You can always go your own way, but it’s a good idea, and use of your time, to discuss your meal with those who really understand how spicy that dish you're having is, or what secret ingredient makes the shrimp pop, and your preferred wine choice fizzle.

5.) Bashing clichés has been almost a cottage industry on the internet, but there is a reason those clichés came into being. Yes, white with fish and red with meat are simplistic rules that aren’t perfect, but they are good rules of thumb.  Get used to asking some very basic questions that can help you make better informed decisions when perusing the wine list. For example, matching the intensity of dish and the wine is usually a good predictor of pairing success. A delicate Riesling might be blown away by a rich pork belly dish, while an intense Cabernet might crush the subtlety of a simply prepared veal chop.

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Comments

  • Snooth User: mediamaven
    491128 12

    This article just wet my appetite for more info on picking the rght wine. Pairing with food is one thing, but what if you're just meeting friends at the many wine 'bistro's' that are popping up, and want to make sure you are getting a good wine at a good price?

    Sep 27, 2010 at 5:42 PM


  • Snooth User: davecarpe
    572855 3

    Personally, I love reading restaurant wine lists. I like to look for wines I know and see what else is around them on the list. Sometimes that introduces me to wines I haven't experienced and will enjoy.

    Someliers are wonderful people to talk to and get to know. Many of them are passionate about wine and really give a lot of time, thought and tasting to select the wines on the wine list and the prices. If you love wine too, they will really ennjoy talking to you and telling you about many of the different wines and why they would select certain pairings.

    The discussion about matching wines to food is spot on. The old rules are really just guidelines. I have had many a wonderful meal of fish like swordfish that I enjoy with a Pinot Noir or a Sangiovese and of course potent fish like Salmon, Tuna or Bluefish will often work well with those wines or even a more potent Cabernet or Bordeaux.

    Autralian Shiras can be so fun with Spicy Italian dishes when I am not in the mood to spend serious money on a Barolo oir Barbaresco.

    Thanks for the great articles. I am really enjoying reading them!

    Sep 27, 2010 at 6:18 PM


  • Snooth User: JoannRoddy
    583806 13

    I just joined up and am enjoying reading your blogs. Thanks for all the great tips!

    Sep 27, 2010 at 6:31 PM


  • Snooth User: zinfandel1
    Hand of Snooth
    154660 1,040

    I like the article.
    I have a question though. I assume we are selecting a wine to enhance the entree. Suppose the side orders (veggies) that are ordered with the entree are at the other end of the spectrum and do not really compliment the chosen wine that was ordered to enhance the entree. How do we select?

    Sep 27, 2010 at 6:57 PM


  • Snooth User: TZiegler
    219109 17

    Mediamaven, I believe the correct term is "whet" like in a whetstone where you are sharpening your appetite. However in this instance it appears to be a perfect description!

    Sep 27, 2010 at 6:58 PM


  • Snooth User: nwinkelman
    530583 18

    I order what I can afford, target a grape that I enjoy and many times being a little adventurous pays off. If I don't like it or it is off I send it back, very politely. Reselect and move on......

    Sep 27, 2010 at 7:30 PM


  • Snooth User: Ekktar
    587208 2

    Some time ago, I read a helpful hint about making sure the vintage of the wine ordered is what is delivered. A couple times since we have been given wine from a later vintage—in one case I knew it wasn't as good, so be sure to look!

    Sep 27, 2010 at 7:37 PM


  • Snooth User: rwor
    426656 17

    When we dine out in a European style restaurant I usually order fairly good European wines. I feel that the leaner style of better Old World wines are easier to match with food.
    When dining at home however, we drink before and after the meal. The meal itself is not such a big event and we usually have only one course. This is not a reflection of the quality my home meals (honestly wife). At home I usually select New World wines which often drink better without food. They are often bigger and fruitier.
    Sometimes I have both.

    Sep 27, 2010 at 8:03 PM


  • Snooth User: davecarpe
    572855 3

    Zinfandel,

    If the Side orders are on the opposite side of the spectrum from the Entree, do they really go with the entree?

    In that kind of situation, what I would do is try to choose something in the middle or go for a complete contrast.

    Le's say the main course is a roasted chicken with a lemony accent and you might ordinarily feel like a rich oaky, buttery california style Chardonnay but you are going to serve it with Macaroni and Cheese which is rich and creamy and cheesy itself. In that case you might want to try something like am Oregon Pinot Noir that has some power with a little astringency to assert itself over the mac and cheese while still being rich and round enough to complement the chicken.

    Do you have a specific set of main and side dishes that you were thinking of?

    Sep 27, 2010 at 8:21 PM


  • Snooth User: hoopdriver
    249104 28

    @davecarpe re: Zinfandel
    well played sir ... nice stuff. pairing is often the most appealing aspect of wine; rarely met a wine-lover who didn't also love food; of these nuggets of wisdom I like #5 -- basing choice on intensity never steers you wrong; balance. Why ruin an expensive meal with a too-bold wine, or a delicate wine with a fiery dish? And it is certainly no faux pas to say "wet your appetite" -- correct idiom aside, the remake is better than the original.

    Sep 27, 2010 at 10:11 PM


  • Snooth User: Ztarbod
    125736 1

    This article was not very informative, except for "why God gave us beer" . Unless one is familiar with wines on the restaurant's wine list, choosing a wine of value is a guessing game.

    Sep 27, 2010 at 10:43 PM


  • Snooth User: cosmoscaf
    256062 54

    The suggestion to discuss the pairing with the sommelier is a good one even if one feels fairly confident about choosing wines in general. I have found myself making bad choices because of presumptions about the recipes. In such situations involving assistance, what is the proper tip to leave for the service in addition to the standard tip for the meal?

    Sep 27, 2010 at 11:58 PM


  • Snooth User: DoctorJoeE
    170476 21

    I'll share one of my personal rules: In most higher-end restaurants, the worst buy on the wine list is usually the second-cheapest wine. That's because many customers, especially "label drinkers" (restaurant slang for wine novices) don't want to look like tightwads by ordering the cheapest wine, so they order the second-cheapest. And sommeliers, who are well aware of this, fill that slot with swill, and mark it up several hundred percent.

    The best buy, on the other hand, is often the cheapest wine on the list. That's typically a new, unusual, or obscure bottle that the sommelier discovered at a tasting and flipped out over. But since nobody else has heard of it, they give it a bargain price to generate interest.

    It's not always true, of course -- but in 30+ years of perusing wine lists, I'd estimate it applies at least 80% of the time. Again, I'm talking about quality wine lists in high-end restaurants; on cheapo lists, it's rare to find any bargains at all.

    Try it out next time you're looking at a good wine list: If the cheapest wine is a really unusual varietal, give it a shot -- or at the very least, call the sommelier over and ask about it.

    Sep 28, 2010 at 12:45 AM


  • Any recommendations for a wine to be paired with a spinach salad with cranberries,blue cheese and balsamic dressing?
    Have a difficult time pairing this....thanks!

    Sep 28, 2010 at 2:14 AM


  • Snooth User: jackster12
    591470 27

    great article... I usually go toward the middle of the list and then ask the server for suggestions on what would match best with the table. But then, I live in France. Most people I've met here grew up on wine and know their stuff.

    Sep 28, 2010 at 3:58 AM


  • RE: Point # 3. Our favorite restaurant is small, has no sommilier, and has a small, but well selected, wine list. The average proce there for a bood bottle is from 1x to 2x the average price of an entree. Yes, I have seen a lot higher mark up, but we do not go there often for that very reason.

    Sep 28, 2010 at 9:00 AM


  • I like your realistic and humorous writing. And, of course, your articles are very interesting and insightful. Can't miss my read with my morning espresso.. I'd like to know more about ordering like a pro as well.

    Sep 28, 2010 at 9:27 AM


  • Now the restaurant that I work in has a completely different way of pricing!!! if a wine comes in at a different year than ordered they add 150% and hope the guest does not notice!!!! This is a five star restaurant

    Sep 28, 2010 at 10:59 AM


  • Snooth User: bertspro
    240695 1

    Just take your iPhone and Snooth the wine you are interested in. Yes, "Snooth" is now a verb!

    Sep 28, 2010 at 11:22 AM


  • Snooth User: bigtsur
    380658 94

    Yes, Handymandy's bate and switch is performed quite often and we diners need to be aware as we can ask for a discount when the wine is not the right vintage. As far as best wine for the best price, this is what the Sommelier should be expert at - or if no Somm, ask for the wine buyer, give them a price range along with an idea of what wines you like (even mention brands, if needed).

    Sep 28, 2010 at 12:19 PM


  • Snooth User: caymanSomm
    543864 16

    As a Sommelier, I agree with the article, use our knowledge! The majority of my peers are honest and are willing to help you find the exact wine that would suit you best. There are those less scrupulous out there who just want to sell you the biggest wine they have but your gut instinct will let you know who they are pretty quick.
    I do not however totally agree with the first two points. In the indusrty at the moment we are all trying to make inventory move so now is the best time to buy from the list, lets face it times are tough and we need sales. I know in my restaurant we have "altered" our mark ups to mirror the economy and peoples pocket books.
    "If it looks too good to be true..." Not always the case here. I have on my wine list remarkable prices of aged Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa, it's all on consignment....as it costs me nothing to get it in I can sell it far cheaper than you would usually find...even at retail!
    Just some more things to be aware of, enjoy your wine and our wine lists :)

    Sep 28, 2010 at 1:52 PM


  • Snooth User: JBSchell
    456818 1

    One should not send wine back because they don't like it, only if there is a flaw.

    Sep 28, 2010 at 1:53 PM


  • Snooth User: DJBradach
    494022 7

    I thought the article was fine. But, one should always inquire if the red wines are stored at "room" temperature. This means in the low 60f range and definately does not mean sitting out in the restaurant unless you are dining in an igloo.

    When served a wine that is too warm, I just leave one of our handy-dandy beverage coasters. You can too, just go to http://www.nomorewarmwine.com and we'll be happy to send you (FREE) a few to discourage the practice of serving warm wine. djb, cio of winefestnews.com

    Sep 28, 2010 at 1:53 PM


  • JBSchell:

    Totally disagree. If you don't like your entree, you can send it back with apologies, such as "it was not what I expected based upon the description."

    Similarly, a sommelier can ask three or four questions that enable him/her to select a solid wine that pairs nicely with the dish. If he/she hasn't, then by all means send it back. If the sommelier is a professional, he should have tasting samples handy, at least for low- to mid-priced wines.

    Now, if you have not relied upon the sommelier, then no way can you send it back, it's operator error at that point.

    Sep 28, 2010 at 4:21 PM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,934

    Georgia, JB is correct. Period, full stop. You are making the decision. If it's the wrong one, live with it and learn.

    Sep 29, 2010 at 1:31 AM


  • dmcker…That's what I said in my last sentence.

    Sep 29, 2010 at 8:48 AM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,934

    Georgia, I understood the last sentence, but I meant even if you had asked and taken the sommelier's advice that was not his/her/the restaurant's 'fault', but your decision in the end. Caveat emptor....

    Sep 29, 2010 at 9:22 AM


  • Snooth User: MSG3003
    71735 15

    The premise of this article is that restaurants don't really care about the wine that is consumed by their patrons and they choose a range of wine from mediocre to quality and price to trick different classes of consumer. Now I don't live in a city with a slew of large exclusive restaurants with sommeliers around every corner - in Seattle we have a lot of small, chef-owned restaurants most of which lack sommeliers. Our wine lists tend to have a west-coast bias, but sometimes you'll find a bistro that wants to feature international treats. But almost universally, the restauranteurs want to complement their food with a variety of quality wines for every wallet size (and the Northwest has plenty of high quality good value options to choose from). I find that the markups are pretty consistent across the price range, maybe with higher markups for more aged red wines. The servers are usually quite knowledgeable about the wines and their pairings with the food (because that's what it's all about!).

    Sep 30, 2010 at 1:14 AM


  • Eileen Sandra Geary: what an interesting recipe! I would choose a Viognier, to give that blue cheese a little competition, or why not a rosé? Probably a slightly "drier" one, but with a little clout, like those from Languedoc-Roussillon.

    Sep 30, 2010 at 6:00 AM


  • Snooth User: drsight
    600559 1

    frequent restaurants that have a reasonable corkage fee and you will avoid the wine cost confusion entirely...$10-15 dollars should be about right for using crystal and being served your wine...call ahead to find out the corkage fee...my wife always asks the "youngish" waiter to suggest the wine, as though they know our tastes, ha! ha! also, if you want, choose little known wines from areas which are fun to explore...then you can take that info to your local wine shop to purchase...enjoy!!!!!

    Oct 04, 2010 at 2:19 PM


  • No comments after 2010.Strange.Such a vibrant article.I enjoyed the treatment.Not needed to follow in total but certainly offers food for thought.Cheers.sidd banerji,wine writer,mumbai,india(mywine9@gmail.com)

    Apr 06, 2012 at 9:43 AM


  • After looking into a number of the articles on your website, I honestly like your way of blogging. I added it to my bookmark website list and will be checking back in the near future.

    May 07, 2014 at 5:30 AM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 222,082

    Thanks for the kind words Alex. I try to keep thing interesting and fresh!

    Best regards

    Greg

    May 07, 2014 at 8:39 AM


  • I found this article about wine selection to be extremely helpful. I do have a few favorite wines, but I did not know about the price guidelines.

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  • When I go to a bar and restaurant, I usually ask the waiter for advice. I just need a dry white wine usually.

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