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Drink Like The Pros: Tips to Navigating Restaurant Wine Lists

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

Wine is a world unto itself and with this comes vast complexity and intimidating lists to peruse when you're out at a nice restaurant. Gone are the days of asking for the “house wine” and getting one of two wines. As with everything in life, tastes have grown more refined over time and the wine list has evolved with it.

Nowadays, restaurants and wineries have dedicated sections or binders with their wines, and you (the customer) have to decide what you prefer. At this point, you're asking yourself, "How do I find a great bottle of wine at a Restaurant?" Here are a few tips to make that process easier.

Decide if you want to order by glass or by the bottle

When it comes to drinking wine, there are two ways to order: by the bottle or by the glass. Of course, which one you choose is totally up to you, but before you make your decision consider the following.

More often than not, you’ll get more bang for your buck when you order an entire bottle instead of having the sommelier pour you just one glass. Glass pours tend to have more markup and you end up paying more. Plus in some restaurants, wines by the glass may be poured from bottles that have been opened for quite some time already. Freshly opened bottles are far more vibrant and aromatic. Don’t worry if you didn’t get to finish the entire thing, it’s perfectly fine to take leftover wine home in most places.

So when is it better to order by the glass? It all comes down to preference. If your group is divided between dry red lovers and fruit-forward white enthusiasts, it’s better for everyone to order a glass of what they would most likely enjoy. Another perk is, you can ask your waiter or sommelier to let you try some wines they already have open before you commit to a glass.

Have a Budget in Mind

How much are you willing to spend? Having a spending limit will help you rule out at least half of the options in the wine list. Some wines are expensive for a reason. They are rare, have a small production, or have many years of aging before release. There is nothing wrong with investing in those wines if you have the available funds.

This is not to say that cheaper wines are not as good, you’ll be surprised to know that some of them may actually be the owner or the sommelier’s favorite. It might help to note that these beverage professionals craft their wine lists based on what they personally enjoy and what they believe best suits the food and atmosphere of the place. If you’re still at a loss, asking your sommelier for something “within this price range” is far more helpful than asking them for wines that are “not too expensive”. The more specific you are, the better.

Find a Style of Wine that Fits your Preference

Red, white, sparkling, or rose? Don’t overthink it. Rules are great, but at the end of the day, it's all about you and your preferences. While your sommelier might recommend light whites at a seafood restaurant, don’t feel shy to order a rich full-bodied red if that’s what your taste buds are craving.

Pick a Region or Grape Variety

You may have tried wines from Bordeaux, Napa Valley, some from Margaret River, or Central Otago in New Zealand. If you enjoyed a taste of a few bottles from that place, you will most likely appreciate other wines from the same region.

With over 3000 grape varietals, you can either order ones you are already familiar with or venture out into ones you are curious to try. If you are feeling adventurous, taking suggestions from your sommelier might introduce you to your next favorite bottle.

Otherwise, focus on the ones you know will have you satisfied. If you are into buttery whites with citrus and bread notes, go for Chardonnay. If you fancy crisp and refreshing whites, Sauvignon Blanc is never out of any restaurant's wine list. Reds go from light Pinot Noir to Full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon - the choice is yours.

If there are multiple bottles of Chardonnay to choose from, narrow your options to ones within your price range and ask your sommelier about their differences. Some might have an older vintage, some might be aged in oak longer than most, or some might exhibit different taste notes. You can even ask which ones would go better with the dish you ordered.

There is, in some ways, no right or wrong way to drink wine. If you are at a restaurant for a specific occasion, whether business or pleasure, then you should try to pick out an enjoyable bottle. And if the menu doesn’t help, a sommelier can be your best friend in all of this. Just remember one thing when drinking wine: enjoy yourself. That’s really all that matters.





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