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Tips for Ordering Wine in a Restaurant

The world of wines can be confusing. There are so many from which to choose, and while you may have developed some favorites that you enjoy while dining at home, when you get to a restaurant, you may feel overwhelmed by the wine list.

Truly, wine lists seem to be getting longer these days and some restaurants are known more for their selection of wines than for their food. This makes going to these establishments especially daunting, as we fear we’ll make the wrong wine choice and embarrass ourselves among our friends or cause a sneer from the snooty waiter or sommelier.

But ordering wine in a restaurant need not be a stressful experience. Though there are many individuals who are well-versed in the particulars of viticulture, many diners are just like you – they enjoy a good glass or bottle of wine with their meal and aren’t experts on the subject. Furthermore, many of the best restaurants with the most extensive wine lists include staff members that are more than willing to help with selections. You can take advantage of their expertise. But if you prefer to tackle the wine choices on your own, consider following some helpful guidelines.

Red or White??

If you have some basic knowledge of wine, you most likely know that white wines go with light foods like salads or poultry while red wines are best for hearty dishes like steaks, stews, or wild game. Of course, once you’ve narrowed your color choice, you’ll still need to consider the many varieties and choose one.

If you have favorites that you drink at home – like a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Syrah – look for those on the menu first. You may even find the specific brand you enjoy. If you stick to a specific type with which you are familiar, it is less likely that you’ll waste your money on a bottle you dislike.

You might also try pairing like with like. For example, if you order French food, try a glass or bottle of French wine. If you opt for lasagna, order a nice Italian Chianti. Spanish or Mexican food? Consider a Graciano or Godello.

You may find that you’ll need to buy more than one bottle, especially if you’re dining with a group that has chosen a wide variety of entrees. Remember to always consider the tastes of your fellow diners when choosing wine.


You’ll find that most restaurants offer bottles of wine in a large price range. Wine experts note that the most expensive isn’t necessarily the best tasting or the best deal. It is common practice to mark up the price of the most expensive and least expensive wines, these experts say, so it’s often wise to buy something that’s right in the middle. These bottles of wine will be closest to their “real” price and will most likely taste good as well.

As you’re muddling through the list of available wines, you may find that your waiter suggests the house wine, especially if he thinks you’re confused as to the best choice. He/she is pushing this because they have an abundance of this wine and want to sell as many bottles as possible. But these also tend to have a high mark-up and aren’t always your best bet. However, if you aren’t well versed in wine selection, it’s an easy choice and you’ll only need to decide on whether you want white or red.

If you’re pretty sure you’re only going to drink a little, purchase just one glass. However, buying the bottle is always the better deal, so if having more than one glass is an option or if you’re sharing with others at your table, go for the bottle. Also, the house wine is indeed a wise choice when it comes to purchasing by the glass simply because it is the one sold most and is probably freshest.

Tasting the Wine

If you’re at a “fancy” restaurant, chances are your waiter or the sommelier will bring your wine to the table and present it to you for tasting. Most likely, you’ll be presented with the cork first but unless you are really well-versed in wine, sniffing it probably won’t mean anything to you…even though it may make you look knowledgeable! Opt instead to look at the small amount of wine that the server will pour in your glass. Be sure it is clear, not cloudy. Next, swirl it around in your glass and sniff it. Does it have a pleasant smell? If it’s either cloudy or has an unpleasant smell, send it back. A good restaurant will not argue with you about this.

You may find that after you accept the wine and it is poured for you and your guests that you don’t like it. Too bad! It’s not proper to send back the wine at that point. Simply note the variety and producer of the wine and don’t order it next time.