Tips on Selecting Wine at a Restaurant
We’ve all been there: you sit down in a lovely restaurant with friends or colleagues (and perhaps…gulp…your boss!) and you hear “You like wine, don’t you? Why don’t you pick something for us to have with dinner?”
This is an all-too common situation for me, as most folks in my social and professional circles know of both my love of and expertise with wine. Despite my certifications and confidence, in situations where I want to impress a date or my boss, choosing wine still brings a brief moment of terror.
Here’s how I approach the wine-picking process, starting with two key questions:
- What’s everyone eating?
- What price range should I stay within?
What’s Everyone Eating?
If it’s a small enough group that you can easily speak to each person, ask each person what they are ordering. Don’t make it an interrogation, and if someone hasn’t decided, that’s okay. Make your decision based on the information you have.
If it’s a large group, then scan the menu to see the types of food, seasonings and preparations. If you’re in a restaurant with an ethnic theme (e.g., Italian, French, etc.), there are likely some commonalities with the types of seasonings in and methods of preparation for many of the dishes, such as the use of basil and oregano in Italian dishes or cream-based sauces and butter in French cuisine, which will be helpful. (And you’ll be getting some additional assistance in a minute, so read on.) Every good restaurant will have created the wine list with the food in mind, so you’ve got that going for you. Then, you need to consider…
What Price Range Should I Stay Within?
This one can be tricky, and will depend on one thing: who’s paying.
If you’re with friends who split the bill evenly, try to assess a “frugality level” for the table and pick a price range that fits the group. If the boss is paying, you probably have a pretty good sense of her “frugality level” so choose accordingly. If you’re paying, pick whatever you want – and next time, invite me! 🙂
Pro tip: the second least expensive bottle on the menu usually has the highest markup on the list. People usually avoid ordering the least expensive bottle so they don’t appear cheap. Restaurants understand this human tendency and bake in additional margin on the second cheapest bottle because that’s where they’ll likely see the highest volume of sales. Avoid the second least expensive bottle because it’s probably overpriced, and don’t dismiss the “cheap” bottle, as it may be the best find on the list!
You have answers to the two key questions, and it’s getting close to time to make a decision.
Selection, Part I
Once you’re armed with menu selections and a price range, select one or two options on the wine list. These will be your “starting point” and might not be what you actually drink with your dinner. (Stick with me, there’s a method here.) If you see familiar producers and wines on the list and you remember how much you liked, and paid for, a particular wine in the past, depending on how the list is organized, you might be able to roughly calibrate the rest of the wine on list to the familiar wine in terms of type and price.
Don’t fall into the trap of always gravitating toward a familiar wine as your selection. Wine is about exploration! Don’t be afraid to try an unfamiliar producer or varietal—even if you’re picking for a date or for the boss.
You have answers to the two key questions, and your “starting point” selections are chosen. It’s almost time to make a decision. The server is walking to the table – and that’s your signal to proceed with Selection, Part II, which I’ll discuss in my next post. Until then, cheers!