Ordering wine at a restaurant can sometimes feel like a daunting task. The wine list comes fast, is longer than the Dead Sea Scrolls, and many of the names are in a foreign language. Luckily, there are no hard and fast rules when ordering wine and the biggest sign of a confident customer is his willingness to ask questions.
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If Available, Take Advantage of the Sommelier
Wine lists are often meticulously curated and it would be impossible to know all of the details of a restaurant’s wine list. By that logic it would be strange if you were to order a bottle of wine without asking some questions first. Bernard Sun, wine director for Jean George restaurants encourages his customers to open up a conversation, “It’s ok to ask, we’re not going to bite anyone’s head off.”
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White or Red
Before the sommelier comes around, check in with yourself and your date to see how you are feeling. Is it hot outside? Then maybe you want a light and crisp white wine. Something like a Sauncer or a Sauvignon Blanc. Is it a frigid night? Then why not go with a bold red like as a Bordeaux or Cabernet. By deciding on white or red wine you’ve already cut the choices in half.
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Know a Few Basics
It is good to know two or three basic wines that you can use to give the waiter an idea of what you like and what you are in the mood for. Heather Branch from Craftsteak broaches the topic with her customers by asking, “If people are really unsure how to describe the wine they’re looking for, I’ll ask them what the last bottle of wine they drank [was], what they drink at home.” Everyone should know that Bordeaux is a big red while a Pinot Noir is usually lighter. A Sauvignon Blanc is light and crisp white and a Riesling is usually sweeter.
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Once the sommelier has suggested a bottle that sounds good, there is still the tricky business of finding out what it’s going to cost you. It is always acceptable to ask how much the bottle is, and if the sommelier has recommended a bottle out of your budget just say, “I’m looking to start with something a little less expensive.” Or if you don’t want to talk about the price out loud then just follow the wines on the menu and if you see something closer to your price range just say, “I’m looking for something more like this wine.” He should get the idea.
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When the wine is brought out the waiter will show you the bottle so you can confirm that it is the one you ordered. Once you give the nod he will uncork the bottle and pour a small amount into your glass. This is for you to determine if the wine has gone bad due to a rotted cork. The wine industry estimates that between one and eight percent of wines have cork taint, so it’s important to perform this task. If the wine has been corked you will know it by the moldy smell and taste.
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The Second Bottle
If you plan on ordering a second bottle mix it up. By now you should be loosened up a bit, so feel free to get more in depth with the sommelier. According to Aldo Sohm, chief sommelier of Le Bernardin in New York, the second wine should “build on or maintain the qualities of the first.” Describe what you liked or didn’t like about the first bottle and talk about what kind of wine would evolve nicely from the first.
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The final question that comes up is how much to tip. Wine is marked up considerably from what the restaurant pays for it, but then again so is salmon. If the wine was good and you stayed within your price range then you should have no problem tipping fifteen to twenty percent on the total bill. At least that’s the consensus of Dorothy Breiter and John Brercher, authors of Wine for Every Day and Every Occasion. In the end though, it’s up to you.
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