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How to Order Wine at a Restaurant & Sound Like You Know What You Want

Learn to ace the wine list before your next date

By Megan Collins | Last Updated: Oct 18 2016

Looking over a wine list at a fancy—or even not so fancy—restaurant can be intimidating. If I’m sweating sounding wine-smart over on my side of the table, I can only imagine the stress you guys face on a date – first or otherwise. After all, you’re the ones ordering…and save me your “Oh you’re so old-fashioned, Megan! Women can order drinks for the table just as well as guys!” Whatever. If you asked me on the date, you’re ordering the wine.

That’s why I sat down with Joseph Hernandez of Wine Enthusiast for a quick vino primer. Got more questions? Post ’em in the comments below and we’ll do our best to get them answered by the pros!

Okay. So. Wine. Let’s talk about it. 

Wine is just grape juice, but fancy (and fermented). Ultimately, drinking wine is about enjoying drinking wine—and frankly, you’re not at a restaurant or wine bar to talk about the nuances of oak or whether or not the tannins are to your liking. Especially on a date, this is a woo-ing opportunity, not a cram session for the Master Sommelier exam.

With that in mind, my first piece of wine advice is simple: Relax, and take your time with the menu. Ask your date what they’d prefer to drink. Ask your server what the restaurant is known for. If you can narrow things down to either white, red or a little bubbly (and I don’t mean just champagne..we’re talking all sparkling wine), you’re already halfway there.

Red. White. Bubbles. What else? 

Well, don’t forget about rosé! From there, a quick glance at the wine list will tell you if the sommelier or the restaurant has a point of view. If you see a lot of California wines, or more French wines than domestic, that tells you something. They know something you don’t—ask and make it a conversation.

Any ordering shortcuts?

If you have had wines from certain regions and  remember them, absolutely go ahead and ask for them. The great regions—Bordeaux, Champagne, Barolo, Chianti Classico, the Mosel in Germany—are renowned because of their attention to quality over many generations. Some of these winemakers are fifth, sixth generation vintners. They continue to do their family’s work, perfected back for sometimes even centuries.

What are you loving right now?

Places like Oregon, the Finger Lakes, Alsace and the Loire in France. These are lighter bodied, higher acid wines, and usually pair beautifully with food. “Big” bodied wines with high alcohol are great for sipping without snacking—but with dinner, they tend to overpower the flavors of your meal. These regions make for food-friendly sips.

Try to develop a general grasp of a region’s climate. Lots of people think that vintage is the be-all-end-all indicator of whether a wine is good. But frankly, if you’re not drinking insanely geeky, collectible wines, you’re better off ignoring the vintage.

Most wine is made to be consumed shortly after it’s bottled—especially whites. Climate can help pinpoint the flavors you like much more precisely: If you ask your server to make a recommendation with phrases like “cool climate, white” (crisp, high acid, floral flavors) or “warm climate, red” (fuller bodied, juicier flavors), you’re way more likely to get what you want, and learn what you like over time.

Not to mention knowing specific regions or climates—even generally—definitely gives you some street cred with the sommelier and your date.

Wine list perusal: Check. What now?

If a specific bottle on the list catches your eye, ask the server to tell you about it. Either they’ll know a bit or they’ll bring the sommelier over. A great sommelier knows the list backwards and forwards, in no small part because they probably put it together themselves. Don’t worry about asking stupid questions, as any sommelier worth their salt will want you to enjoy the wine they’re pouring you.

And if you still don’t know what to order? 

It happens! Just ask the server or sommelier what they are drinking these days, or what they’re excited about on the list.

And make ordering wine be about the food: You’re there to eat, most likely (or you should eat something, anyway), and wine is nothing if not the best flavor enhancer. Be specific about what you like. “I want a big red” tells your server nothing, but “I love inky, spicy Cabernets” is much more helpful and gets you closer to a wine you’ll enjoy. Be thinking about the adjectives you use to describe bottles you really enjoy, which will help get you to your perfect pour.

Order by the bottle or by the glass?

By-the-glass lists are great for exploring the wine list, and the wines are usually opening up, which basically means evolving to its true taste after exposure to open air. You’re well within your rights to ask for a taste of one or two wines if you have an idea of what you like, but don’t push it.

Be aware that by-the-glass wines typically have a higher mark-up than bottles. Consider asking for an affordable bottle of something similar that pours 4-6 glasses, if the by-the-glass pick is a bit rich for your blood.

If you’re worried about cost but don’t want to look cheap, point to a bottle within your budget with your forefinger and its price with your pinky. Tell the server you’re looking for a wine similar to that pick with your meal, and solicit their recommendations. They’ll be able to discretely guide you to a similarly priced bottle that will make for a better pairing.

Any other rules we should be aware of? 

Never sniff the cork. It’s a newbie move and doesn’t tell you anything about the wine. You should give the glass a quick swirl and sniff, though. If the wine smells “off” (like, say, wet cardboard or newspaper), it’s corked (i.e. not something you want to drink). You can refuse the bottle if you think it’s spoiled, but don’t send it back just because you don’t like it. That move officially makes you a jerk. Your server won’t like it—and your date likely won’t be into it either.

Tell me:

Have you experienced FOMOW (Fear Of Mis-Ordering Wine) on a date before? What’s your go-to move?

Got a go-to wine? Share your favorites with me on Twitter!