How to Navigate Restaurant Wine Lists, According to Our Somm Team
While we can’t cover the vast world of wine in one simple blog post, our team has put together a list of six go-to tips and tricks for breaking down wine lists everywhere. Simply follow the hacks below and you’ll be on your way to certified sommelier status in no time.
Take Your Time
Although your sommelier or server may ask you for a drink order within minutes of receiving the list, it’s only out of courtesy. Don’t feel pressured to make your bottle selection on the fly! Simply take all of the time that you need to look over the menu’s offerings – and even better, grab a cocktail or glass of bubbles to sip while scanning the establishment’s selections. A thought-out bottle choice is generally always better than a random quick pick.
Choose Bottle Over Glass to Save
A great way to ensure that you’re getting the best bang for your buck is to go bottle over glass. Generally speaking, a standard bottle of wine generally holds five glasses of wine (four if the pours are generous), so multiplying a by-the-glass price by five will almost always be more expensive than the per bottle price. Should the evening call for more than one drink per person, choosing a bottle over by-the-glass pours will always offer more return financially, especially if you’re with a larger group of people.
Learn the Layout of the List
When sitting down with a list, take a moment to figure out how the beverage director curated the program. While most lists are organized by wine color followed by region, some more eclectic lists will feature their wines by body or style. We recommend figuring out what you’re going to eat first, then reverting back to the list to find a solid selection. Grabbing roast poultry or something with mushrooms? Burgundy or Piedmont are great places to start. Savoring raw bar bar favorites or fresh salads? Champagne, the Loire Valley, or coastal Italian regions offer great white wine options.
Know that Price Doesn’t Always Equal Quality
Above all, this is the golden rule of navigating restaurant wine lists: price doesn’t always equal quality! Sure, big-hitting wines from top producers / regions will certainly run more than other bottles, but for more approachable selections, this isn’t always a solid indicator. For example, many restaurants / lists will mark up well-known grape varieties and producers in knowing that customers will simply order them out of comfort… which leads us to our next point…
Venture Off the Beaten Path
This is why exploring is key! Go-to regions, producers, and grape varieties can often be sold at a premium, as clients will gravitate towards them as a safe choice. However, there’s so much value to be found in off-the-beaten-path grape varieties and appellations. Love Sancerre? Opt for a crisp Assyrtiko from Santorini or an acid-laden Vermentino from Italy. Can’t get enough Red Burgundy in your life? Seek out Gamay from Beaujolais, Schiava from Trentino-Alto Adige, or Zweigelt from Austria for interesting alternatives.
Utilize the Sommelier
When in doubt—or even when not in doubt—chat with one of the restaurant or wine bar’s sommeliers. An establishment’s beverage team is there to help, not intimidate—and if you express an interest in wine, a good sommelier will likely lead you down a rabbit hole to something you’ve never tried (and will most likely really enjoy). Don’t be shy, strike up a conversation. You never know where you’ll end up!