Some restaurant wine lists are short and to the point: a handful of white wines, a handful of reds, maybe a sparkling or two. Other lists are enormous, daunting collections of years, vineyards, and grapes – how are you supposed to navigate a wine list as big as a textbook?! And when the server returns with the bottle: what are you supposed to do then?
We understand the pressure behind ordering a bottle that’s exactly what you’re looking for, not to mention the little tableside ritual once the bottle arrives. Here’s how we like to enjoy a nice evening out. After all, we believe wine should add value to our experiences, not detract from them.
Take Your Time
You deserve a chance to relax! Start with a cocktail before regarding the wine menu. Don’t feel rushed to make a decision. Notice any patterns: the list may be heavily skewed toward red wine, for instance. That may be a hint that reds pair best with that restaurant’s food.
Even the most experienced wine drinkers will come across grapes, geographical areas, and producers they’ve never heard of before. That’s part of the fun! If a particular bottle catches your eye, ask the server about it. They (or a bar manager) should be able to tell you a little about the bottle and what it pairs with best.
One of the best ways to narrow down your choices is by identifying no more than three bottles you’re interested in and then asking your server for their recommendation. Any more than three becomes unwieldy and it’s likely you’ll forget what differentiates one bottle from the next.
Talking about money is awkward, we know, but good servers would rather have a full picture of what you want (price point included!) than try to guess and potentially get it wrong.
Let’s imagine you know you don’t want to spend more than $80 on a Pinot Noir. The conversation could go:
You: We’re looking for a bottle of Pinot Noir to pair with the food we’ve ordered. What would you suggest?
Server: Great! Our sommelier just brought in this amazing bottle from an incredible producer who only sells a handful of bottles a year. We’re the only restaurant in the area with it on our list and I think it’d be just perfect with what you’ve ordered!
You: That sounds fantastic! We’ll take that!
And then the bill comes, and you’re upset with yourself or the server because it’s $150.
Instead, if you’re upfront with what you’re looking for in addition to what you’d like to spend, your server can help guide you in the right direction, like this:
You: We’re looking for a bottle of Pinot Noir under $80 to pair with the food we’ve ordered. What would you suggest?
Server: Great! I have a few options, but I really think this one from Oregon would be the best fit with your meal.
You: Let’s do it!
The server was right about the pairing and when you get the bill, the bottle was $65.
Use the server’s knowledge of their list and the food menu to your advantage. Trust us: they’d rather sell bottles of wine at any price point than none at all. By being honest about what you're willing to spend, they can do their job to make your evening memorable.
This is the part that looks the most pretentious, but it doesn’t have to be that way. When you order a bottle of wine, the server (or perhaps the sommelier or bar manager) will bring it out to your table with appropriate glassware. They want you to see the sealed bottle to ensure that you’re getting what you ordered, so take a look at the label before they open it. If you ordered a specific vintage, make sure that’s reflected on the bottle.
From here, the server will open the bottle and lay the cork on the table. You may have seen people smell the cork – there’s some debate around this, but our view is that there’s no point in sniffing the cork. The majority of the time, it just smells like…well, cork. Take a look at it, though, because it can indicate improper storage if the wine has seeped all the way to the top of the cork.
Traditionally, whoever ordered the wine will then be poured a small sample. This little taste is to determine that the wine hasn’t suffered any faults, not to see if you like it. This is another reason why it’s important to let your server know your expectations for the bottle. By all means, send it back if you detect cork taint, if the wine is cooked, or another flaw! But if it’s just not what you thought it was going to be, that may be a trickier situation. A manager may not be willing to take the bottle off your bill.
Once you’ve agreed that the wine is sound and the server has poured for you and your guests, the server may ask if you’d like it in an ice bucket at the table (for bubbles and white wine) or if you’d prefer they keep cold at the bar. That’s entirely up to you. Bottles of red wine may automatically be left at the table. You’re welcome to pour for yourself and your guests without waiting for the server to do so.
If you don’t finish the bottle at dinner, your server may be able to package it to go home with you, but these laws vary by area.
Don’t Feel Pressured to Buy Anything
Just because you were handed a wine list doesn’t mean you have to buy a bottle. Maybe you looked through it and nothing appealed to you. That’s fine! Try one of their cocktails or leave the drinking to another night.
We hope this guide helps demystify the wine ordering process!