How to Choose Wine at a Restaurant

How does someone who is not a sommelier or a graduate of UC Davis’ viticulture and enology program order wine in a restaurant? To mortals this task can seem daunting. There is nothing worse when you are out on a date and the hostess puts a wine list the length of a Tolkien novel in front of you. The stakes are high. Overpaying and disappointing your date can be detrimental to the cause. Think of this as a map to avoiding a common dinner date faux pas.

To help describe my process to wine ordering I thought I would use an analogy that most of us can relate to. For the purposes of the following analogy I am assuming you have in fact consumed wine before, and not box wine, something with a cork. If you have truly never tried wine before I would suggest consuming a few bottles at home and at the very least deciding if you prefer red or white.

We all know how painfully awkward it can be to end up at an event where you don’t know anyone and must “suss out” second degree connections without the benefit of LinkedIn or Facebook. At a first glance, I would check to see if anyone I know is there. Let’s assume a friend, or someone you know personally, is a wine you have had before and recognize. If you are lucky enough to come across something you have had previously and enjoyed, well then you are way ahead of the curve and can stick with a familiar face. In short, mission accomplished.

For the sake of argument let’s say you do not immediately recognize anyone and you have to survive for some period of time in a room of strangers. The first thing I would do is search for someone who gives off a hint of familiarity or who just looks friendly. Maybe you see someone wearing a shirt with the logo of your alma mater or a sports team you support. You know that at the very least you have a common interest that you can use to strike up a conversation. In a wine list this would equate to coming across a wine from Napa and realizing you have enjoyed other wines from Napa. Or perhaps instead of a region, it is a varietal—cabernet, merlot, Bordeaux, etc. Just like the party, it is somewhere to start where you are not totally in the dark.

Once you have narrowed down the vast unknown to a smaller subset, it comes time to make your move. Truth be told I think the analogy dies when it comes to price and the potential landmine of over paying, so let’s put to rest our party analogy at this point.

When trying to pick from the page of cabernet’s or Napa reds that you have identified as familiar, it is important to keep a few things in mind to avoid getting hosed on price:

1)      Try to order somewhere mid-list. This one is pretty simple. Don’t think you are out-witting the restaurant by ordering the cheapest or second cheapest bottle. The highest markups are predominantly on the lowest end of the list. By moving even three or four bottles off of the bottom, you are better suited to preserve some value. As a rule of thumb restaurants mark-up wine anywhere from 100-500% above retail. So that $68 cabernet might actually cost $22 retail and substantially less in the wholesale marketplace.

2)      Beware of the brand! Sticking in your comfort zone and “looking for your friend at the party” can seem like a safe bet, but when it comes to price or value it could be a trap! Restaurants know the wines with the biggest brand recognition will garner the most attention. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see the most egregious markups on these bottles, whether it is a cheap or expensive.

At the end of the day ordering a wine is about picking something that complements your meal and does not break the bank. So if your budget is $75, whether you could buy that bottle for $25 or $55, it still serves its purpose. In summary, the key is to try and find a comfort zone on the wine list where you can operate in and then narrow it down to a final decision based on price.

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