If you find yourself always ordering the same old bottle of white because wine lists make no sense, that ends now. You’re about to be introduced to all sorts of new wine with a little help from Marnie Old, sommelier, author of Wine: A Tasting Course, and one of the country’s leading wine experts. Old, who admits that wine knowledge has been used “as a crude social yardstick in American society,” has an almost foolproof way of taking the confusion and desperation out of pairing your ravioli with a red.
“Wine lists provide too little information on what sets the items apart from one another flavor-wise. While you can usually tell what color a wine is, the listing itself usually only includes the winery, grape or style, vintage and price, which is all close to meaningless unless you’re already a wine expert,” says Old.
Fortunately, you don’t need to sommelier speak to order with confidence. Even if the only detail you know is that you prefer red over white, you’ll be able to get something decent. Best of all, you can slyly avoid blowing your budget on a bottle, without ever saying a word about price.
Before you look at the specific bottles on the list, get a good look at how the menu is organized. At the very least, it should be divided into sparkling, red, white, and rosé categories. Some menus may add a dessert wine category, which you can skip looking at unless you’re ordering dessert or a solo after-dinner drink. A menu may also be organized by countries or wine regions, with the bottles within that region divided between reds, whites, and bubblies.
Once you’re familiarized with how the menu is organized, ask yourself one question: What kind of wine have I enjoyed in the past that I’d like to drink again?
Do you recall having a Merlot at a friend’s house that made you think, “You know what, Miles, I do want more f’n Merlot?” A Riesling that had just a hint of sweetness that elevated a simple lobster roll? A Garnacha that somehow made your burger taste even better? Now that you know how the menu is organized, it should be easy to find a similar wine.
“But, wait,” you’re thinking. “All I remember about the wine I liked was that it was red!” It’s okay. Don’t panic.
It’s fine that you can’t remember specifics. The chances that the list has the exact bottle you enjoyed in the past will be small. What you’re looking for is a jumping off point to begin an easy conversation with the sommelier or your server about what you’ll order.
What’s that jumping off point? It’s the wine you remember you enjoyed before. Find a wine in that style that’s also in your budget. When you’ve found one, it’s time to call over the pro.
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Believe it or not, you’ve already done all the work you’ll need to do to look like you know what you’re talking about. The rest of the work will fall on the professional who will understand how to help you, as long as you follow Old’s advice.
“When the server comes to take your order,” says Old, “point to the wine on the menu and say ‘I’d like something like this, but would like to try a wine I haven’t tasted before. Can you recommend something?’”
Here is the most important part about pointing — point, not to the name of the bottle but to the price of the bottle. Put your pointer finger directly under the price and you will have given your server a very important signal.
“If you are clearly pointing at the wine’s price, not the name or grape, it will be clear that you’re open to suggestion but are not ceding control on how much you want to spend,” says Old.
You have just given your server all the information needed to point you to a bottle or two that you can order with confidence. Your only job now is to trust the recommendations and say, “We’ll take that bottle.”
If the server has given you more than one choice, don’t agonize over which to choose. Go ahead and make your choice based on your fancy. Choose the less expensive bottle. Or, choose the one with the more interesting name. Or, choose the one from a destination you’ve always wanted to visit.
Finally, remember this: Wine lists are written by professionals like Old who design them with the customer’s experience in mind. They choose bottles they know are quality in all price ranges, not just in the highest price range. Trust the choices and the recommendations of the professionals, and you will be ordering like a pro every time you open the wine list.
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