How to navigate a restaurant's daunting wine list

Wine lists often make people anxious.

When I worked in restaurants, watching a patron peruse the menu was a little like watching my father troubleshoot his lima-bean-green station wagon in 1988 -- there's a lot of motion, but very little of it appears to be informed. The guest's anxiety is only exacerbated when the server inevitably suggests the most expensive bottle of the list.

Speaking from experience, there's also anxiety on the part of the person who's making the recommendations. Nobody likes their suggestions to be rejected, the server's tip (or the sommelier's tip out) varies greatly depending on what guests order, and the server's lack of wine knowledge might be a source of insecurity for him.

In restaurants with a more robust beverage program, an individual's wine knowledge is often a prerequisite to being hired. In others, not so much.

So what at first glance seems like a simple question -- how do I order a bottle of wine? -- quickly begins to feel like a fierce bout of awkward sex. Everyone is pretending like they know what they're doing, but all parties are having very little success in doing it.

Deep breaths. Here are four foolproof tips to help you order a suitable bottle of wine.

Offer some information about yourself

Like dating, it helps to know yourself well enough to know what you want and, first and foremost, how much money you'd like to spend. If money is no issue, then try to communicate that without sounding conceited. Your options open up considerably the more money you have (wine can be an expensive hobby), but if you've budgeted $50 or $100 for a bottle, then there's no shame in saying so.

You'll enjoy the $50 bottle you can afford more than the $200 bottle you can't.

Second, try to remember what varietals and wines you've enjoyed before. Wines you've liked in the past can serve as a baseline for a sommelier or server. The same thing applies for region. If the server knows where you normally like your wines from, that piece of information can narrow down the list of potential options quickly.

Lastly, articulate what kind of experience you're looking for. Are you celebrating an anniversary? Ask for something old. On a first date? Tell them you're looking for something new. Is it the end of a long week? There's nothing wrong with going to something familiar and comforting.

Consider what's on your plate

It's no secret food and wine complement each other beautifully. They can also clash. You don't have to know the exact dish you want, but try to narrow it down to a general category: seared fish, grilled steak, sashimi, etc. There are a million variables within your meal that might make the wine you're ordering fall flat (vinaigrette, a cloying compote, etc.). The sommelier table-side can navigate that terrain for you.

Don't just pick any wine. Find one that suits you.

Order the wine as early as possible

Diners should do this for several reasons. First, it gives you time to enjoy it prior to the food arriving. The aromas of the food can often obscure the aromas of the wine. This isn't a bad thing, but if you're trying to get a feel for what's in your glass, it helps to spend some time with it before your Washington State syrah is competing with hickory grilled pork.

Many fine bottles of wine also fall flat because they are consumed too soon out of the bottle. If you're drinking anything with age on it or anything that needs time to open up, you'll want it to decant for 30-60 minutes prior to drinking. If your sommelier knows what you're drinking with your entrees before you've ordered them, then there's more than enough time to let the wine breathe. If you order a second-growth from Bordeaux that's had 10 years in the bottle 5 minutes before entrees hit the table, well then, you're just wasting good money and fine wine on a bad decision.

Know who you're talking to

Not everyone serving you is comfortable navigating the wine list you're holding. It's okay to ask a general question to make sure you're talking to the right person. It's easy enough to ask to speak to the sommelier, but what if the restaurant doesn't employ one? Try this: "I'd like to speak to someone who knows the wine list." Even if the person who's built the wine list you're holding isn't a sommelier, they may have robust wine knowledge and be entirely capable of getting you where you need to be.

It's also completely acceptable to ask which staff member knows the wine list the best. Even asking the question tacitly lets the server know it's okay to hand you off to another server, manager, or bartender that might be better equipped to help you. Your primary server will still be getting tipped on your selection in most restaurants, so there's no shame in them asking for help.

In closing, I'll offer a general piece of advice if you're ever in doubt: it's okay to ask questions until you feel comfortable. Don't feel like you have to know which direction the vineyards your wine came from faced or the brix the grapes were at when they were harvested. Just know what you like, how much damage you want to do to your wallet, and who you're talking to. The sommelier can get you the rest of the way home.

Booze News Insider Robert Tousley distributes wine to local restaurants for Republic National Distributing Company.

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