Tips to Ordering Wine in a Restaurant

Tips to Ordering Wine in a RestaurantNothing beats a good bottle of wine. I rarely order wine when I go out, but I try to sip a glass as much as I can when I am at home. (Speaking of that… I am drinking a nice glass of red right now.) I don’t tend to order wine when I go out for dinner due to the cost. Sure, I’ll pay a few extra bucks for a pint of beer, but wine is usually out of my price range. Most places will even charge you $15 to bring your own bottle… most wines I frequent aren’t even that expensive in the first place.

Anyway, I have ordered wine before. I actually used to wait tables, so I know all about ordering a bottle. Waiting tables, especially in fine dining, you have to be aware of how folks tend to order a bottle. You also have to know what types of wine to offer with the dish that your table is ordering for dinner. Through my years, I have learned a lot. Here are some tips for ordering wine in a restaurant.

The Sommelier Pours

This is how I like to order wine. You let the server come over, show you the label, and open the bottle at your table. If the server is good, the cork will be left on the table for your inspection. I actually save corks, so it’s nice when the cork is left on the table. If it is not left, I will request it be delivered after the first glass has been poured. Sometimes the server will even offer the cork for you to smell. If he or she does, do. Smell the cork. (Did you know the smell is actually not the most important part of the cork? Squeeze the end of the cork. If there is moisture in the cork, that’s a good sign of a fine bottle of wine.)

After you sniff the cork, the server should offer you a taste. Once the wine is in the glass, stick your nose into the glass and take a whiff. Don’t stop there. Taste it. I like to swish the wine around in my mouth, and spit it back out allowing the flavors to dance on your tongue. That is when you will know the true taste of the bottle you are about to enjoy.

If you must, try it again. If you don’t like the wine, say so. It’s your call. Don’t order a bottle you are not happy with.

Back to the Cork

Let’s get back to the cork for a second. Besides smelling and squeezing the cork, make sure to look on the side of it. There should be, depending on how expensive the bottle of wine is, an insignia on the cork. This should match, as well as the date of the bottle, to the label. If you are getting a nice bottle, and it doesn’t match, chances are it’s a counterfeit. There are too many cases of counterfeit bottles being sold at fine dining establishments all over the world. Don’t be a sucker for a cheap bottle of wine.

Speaking of price, what’s an expensive bottle of wine? That depends. I have a hard time spending more than $50 for a bottle. Some more. That is all in the wallet of the beholder.

Wine-by-the-Glass Programs

Wine is expensive. Most restaurants will charge a lot for the bottle, but will charge even more (per volume) for a glass. When you order a bottle of wine, try ordering a half bottle. This will get you two, maybe three glasses of wine and will save you money in the long run. If you are lucky, and the restaurant has a by-the-glass program, try that. You will get to sample several bottles of wine, from red to white and everything in between. These are usually pretty cheap too, as the samples are smaller in size yet allow you a wide range of wines to sample.

Do you love vintage… or producers?

I will assume that you are dining at a fairly nice place to be reading this. If you are dining somewhere that has a sommelier, chances are the sommelier has dined with a handful of producers. Sommeliers love producers. They have dined with them, shared wine with them (the producers wine of course) and have built a personal bond with their favorite producers.

I personally like the vintage. I pick a year, a region, and fall in love with the wines. Right now I am hooked on the 2008 Pinor Noir from Oregon. The climate and the soils up there produce a soft, elegant and fruity red. Not too dry on the palate, and goes great with just about any entrée. I tend to chill mine too. I am on the 20/20 program with wines I enjoy. For reds, I will stick them in the refrigerator for twenty minutes before I pour and with whites I will leave them on the counter for twenty minutes before I pop the cork.

Don’t be a BIG Shot

When you go out, unless you are trying to impress someone, don’t act like a Mr. Big Shot. Just order the bottle how you would if dining alone. No one at the table will be impressed (if they are, they shouldn’t be) and the server will know more than you anyway. No matter how much you know about wine, and the wines you are ordering… the servers know more. They are supposed to… that’s what you are tipping 20% for!

I found this list of tips in a recent issue of GQ. I took their titles, read their descriptions, and added my own two cents. Funny thing is, I agreed with nearly everything they said. Of course, they said, “don’t smell the cork”. Bollocks… I ALWAYS smell the cork. That’s why I am upset to see so many bottles moving away from the cork for the cap. It’s not the same, and does not provide the same user experience. I save the cap too, in spite of the switch.

Regardless, ordering wine is not easy… but with a little practice, and a little education on the process you will be a pro in no time. Bottoms up people!