Don't Be Scared Of That Wine List

I’m no sommelier. I’ve never worked in a restaurant. I have, however, eaten at some nice ones. I’ve also eaten at not-so-nice ones.

Even Applebee’s and Chili’s and Outback Steakhouse offer wine. So even if you aren’t out for a real nice meal, you may be presented with a wine list. Sometimes as a separate menu, other times simply as a section of the restaurant’s larger menu.

Recent conversations have led me to understand that some people, well, find this intimidating. The topic of what to pair with what you’re eating is combined with two factors: unfamiliarity and cost.

You’re not going to be familiar with every wine on any restaurant’s wine list. So it becomes more important to be familiar with regions and varieties that you like. This only comes with experience, I can’t really help you there. But here are some tips I’ve used in the past.

Picking Wine By The Price

Especially by the glass, wine in restaurants is expensive. It just is, that’s not going to change. A restaurant will pay for a bottle of wine with 1-2 glasses from it. They can then serve 3-4 glasses of pure profit. This isn’t a rant, though, so let’s leave that for another time.

Most restaurants will offer a House White and a House Red, the cheapest wines by the glass on the menu. Don’t buy them.

My recommendation, as odd as it may sound, is to order the glass that is two more expensive than the house wine. So if you’re not too concerned about variety, but know you want a red, find the House Red, then the wine next on an ascending list of cost, then the one after that. Order that wine.

Why? This is just conjecture based on experience, but it has always seemed to me that the bigger markups are on the less expensive wines by the glass. The same rule may not work for wines by the bottle (and certainly doesn’t at the top end: that bottle of 30-year-old first growth Bordeaux didn’t cost the restaurant close to $3000) but by the glass this tends to work. You end up with a better “bang for your buck” situation without buying a top-end glass of wine.

Of course, the real way to get what you want from a restaurant’s wine list?

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask

This is really true only in better restaurants, but ask if they have a sommelier on staff. If you’re paying over $30 for a steak, they ought to. These guys (and gals) are awesome, and their purpose in the restaurant includes helping customers like you. Let them know what you’ve ordered (or intend to order), what you’ve liked in the past, what you’re in the mood for. They know their wine list, and they know how to help.

When I suggested this to a friend, she seemed shocked at the idea that this is even a possibility. But it is, and if people don’t know about this, they should.

Ask. Sommeliers are there to help. Take their recommendation, but if what they bring you isn’t to your liking, don’t keep it. I’m not suggesting you be an indecisive prick changing your mind or sending back wine over and over, I’m just suggesting you ask for help and drink it if you like it.

Can any current or former waiters or sommeliers chime in? Am I crazy? Let me know.

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