Ordering wine at a restaurant can be a windy road to madness. For some, the thought might bring low-level anxiety, while for others, the journey is like an adventurous trek up Everest without an oxygen tank.
Lots of people bring with them the latest wine apps, which breaks down each vintage for the last 20 years and details each little fact of their terroir. As a backup, they’ll scribble tasting notes they read in the latest issue of Wine Spectator. I’ve been known to look online and see if the restaurant I’ll be dining at has a wine list. The online list may not be updated daily, but it will give me a general sense of what kind of wines they carry.
However, as you go about ordering wine with your dinner, here are a few basic things to remember. First, wine is meant to compliment your meal. The food you’re being served should be the focus. The wine, by design, highlights the flavors on the plate and when done right, it can be exquisite. That’s why the chef is considered the king, and the sommelier is the bastard stepchild who will do whatever is necessary to overthrow the monarchy and take control of the castle. I’m kidding… well, a little bit.
The truth is I know many great sommeliers who pride themselves on enhancing the dining experience to a whole new level with their ‘wine to food’ pairing. These people are constantly advancing their wine knowledge, and going to private tastings to stay current on new releases. A great example is in the article I wrote about during my visit to The French Laundry .
I also know a few wine stewards who are like used car salesmen, with their only goal being that of selling you an overstocked wine at an inflated margin so they can make their monthly quota of ‘bottles out the door' to get their cash bonus so they can score more coke after work.
If you’re eating at a fine (or nearly fine) dining restaurant, they will likely have a certified sommelier. Someone who has passed a Level 2 or Level 3 test from the Sommelier exam. If they have a Level 4 on staff, then you are eating at a freaking fantastic restaurant that probably has a couple of Michelin Stars hanging about.
My suggestion for keeping the stress at bay and making it easy on yourself is this: don’t even look at a wine list. That’s right. Just set it down. Instead, ask your sommelier to use their best judgment and to please select a bottle that will pair perfectly with what you’re eating. Give them your price range if you have a budget and if not, tell them to choose their personal favorite or ask them, “What would you have with this dish?” As a side note, if you have no budget, then please, invite me to dinner. Seriously. Invite me. I took etiquette classes. I know how to behave. Well until the cognac is served. Then the pants are coming off.
If you’re watching your wallet a bit more carefully yet still want an enjoyable experience, ask them to match the cost of wine to the price of the meal. Keeping an even closer eye on your expenses? No worries. Just be specific, tell them what you’re willing to spend per bottle and stick with it. It’s unlikely a sommelier would try to talk you up, but if they do, be firm with your “no.” Again, it should never happen, but if it does, they probably have a 1987 Honda Accord with low miles, ice cold A/C, with used coke bindles crammed under the driver’s seat that they want to sell you.
There’s actually one more option if you prefer to forego the sommelier’s opinion and it’s this: Growing up I’d watch my father order wine. The old man liked his Reds, didn’t know much about wine, but had a simple rule; order the second most expensive bottle on the list. That was his thing. This was before Robert Parker declaring the 1982 Bourdeaux vintage the best wine in decades and the cost of wine in general skyrocketed. That, by the way, seemed to happen literally overnight. Back then a wine from the top regions of France could be had for well under $100 and the idea of any wine selling at over $100 a bottle was insane. My how the times have changed.
When entering a place for dinner, the first thing I look for is where the wine is stored. I can’t stand seeing wine just racked on a wall. Seriously. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine. There they sit (or lay) with no temperature control. “Are you kidding me?” is always the question that runs through my mind. I’m constantly tempted to ask, “Hey, do you keep your meat in the ally, hanging on hooks?” Sure, the dining area in most restaurants is kept relatively cool, but when a room fills up for dinner service, the temperature climbs naturally, due to body heat. Further, when the place is closed, I seriously doubt they leave the A/C running all night. The temperature in the room is constantly fluctuating. It’s like giving those bottles a microclimate spanking day in and day out. For all real wine lovers, it’s blasphemy. That’s why the first thing I do when a bottle is served to me is touch it to feel how cold it is. If it’s room temperature, I give a little sigh and sad shake of my head and ask the server to open it and bring a bucket of ice. Sometimes they look at me strangely, as if to say, “Why would you ice down a cabernet?” I simply tell them that under no circumstance should wine ever be served at room temperature, for the simple fact that you cannot control the temperature of the damn room. Warm wine is offensive! If I’m feeling particularly overbearing, I’ll pour the entire contents of the salt shaker into the bucket. Why? Because saltwater chills faster than regular water. Remember that when you take the ‘Level Two’ sommelier exam.
I generally select that which I’m familiar with. It's a great rule for everyone. Unless you are the adventurous type and want to try a red from South Africa that is made from a grape varietal that only three people in the world can pronounce, then be my guest. If that’s not your speed, however, then it’s simple. I’m not paying restaurant prices for a bottle I may not enjoy, and since they’re unlikely to refund me if I don’t like it, I’ll pass, thank you. That said, wines from Spain, Chile, Argentina and other wine regions of the world are far lower in price than French or California wines, so you may want to live a little. They’re often priced to allow for a little adventure.
If you want an idea of where to start, I’d suggest you choose a varietal first. The popular ones will always be priced at a margin that favors the restaurant. Tattoo that information to your brain. Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay will bite you because they tend to be the varietals that people are most familiar and comfortable with. The sommeliers know this, and some will steer you in that direction. Here’s something else to make a note of; if you’re having a steak and you think you’d love a bold Cabernet to go with it, you might want to try a Zinfindel instead. Even though a zin is lighter than a cab, the heavy tannin can pair perfectly, and zins are priced much lower than cabs. You ‘could’ choose a Merlot, but I cannot stand that grape, and although I won’t blatantly discourage you from drinking it, I also refuse to encourage you. I honestly have only disdain for something that was grown to reduce the tannin level of a Cabernet Franc. Like a baby laxative used to lessen the potency of cocaine. I don’t even like writing about the varietal that shall not be named, so I won’t.
Here’s another little nugget I want to make you aware of. If you find yourself at a restaurant whose list has a bit more depth to it, you can often score a great bottle at a great price. The reason for this is simple. A big list is a lot to manage and because of how often their inventory can change, sometimes ‘B-list wine’ or even an ‘A-list wine’ can be overlooked and lost in the shuffle. Trust me. It happens. I found one such wine. It wasn’t quite like finding a unicorn, but close. It had clearly been unobserved. Wine like this one you’d think could not possibly be missed, but it was. It’s what I call a ‘Hidden Gem’. I didn’t want to seem too anxious, but I needed to order it at once. The wine was a 2006 Opus One, and it was on the menu for $200. You may be asking, “How in the world is $200 a gem or a bargain?” Well, a 2006 Opus One retails for $200, and on the restaurant side of things, Opus One is typically reserved for finer dining locations, and when it's listed, you’d likely find it selling for $400 - $600. So yes, it was a gem, and yes, it was mine. I tried ordering more, but that was their only bottle. Thanks, Captain Jacks!
Again, be mindful that restaurants have a tendency to markup familiar wines as much as 400%. They do that for the simple reason that if customers seem to know the label they feel safe with it. A good example of this is any Robert Mondavi that shows up on a wine list. I’ve been doing this for such a long time, and I’ve drunk so much wine (thankfully more good than bad) that I can look at almost any wine list and figure out what they’re pricing is based on. Hey, from the restaurant’s perspective, I get it. The money, or rather the profit, isn’t in the food, it’s in the booze. I’m not only paying for the bottle, but I'm also paying for the service, the atmosphere, the experience, the overall quality of the meal and the talent that runs the back and front of the house and trust me, that goes a very long way.
Want to know what’s wrong with a restaurant that has bad reviews? Start at the top. Back to my point. Taking it all into consideration, I don’t mind paying the markup on a nice pinot if they’re going to wow me at every turn. If I just wanted a killer $100 bottle of wine, I can just go to my wine cellar and indulged. But if I’m going to pay for the up sale, they’ll need to be on their toes. If I'm sincere, however, I’m more likely to treat myself to something that’s not already waiting for me at home.
Depending on the place, they may tend to carry younger vintages, which I’m never thrilled with. So, unless they have a phenomenal list, it may be a bit harder to find older bottles. That’s terrible when you are looking for a red to order. Seriously, it’s no fun drinking a cabernet that was just released. You’d be better off with a white or even a sparkling, as they don’t need the age as much as reds do to be quaffable. A nice trick is to get a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine and have a glass with appetizers, then put the bottle on ice. Follow that up by ordering a glass of red with the main, and finish the sparkling bottle that’s been in the ice bucket with your dessert. It’s great because you're only in for one bottle and a glass or two the entire night, which is perfect for those conscious about what they're spending. I know. I know. I just mentioned by the glass, which I’ll admit, is the devil’s way of selling wine. The markup on a glass of wine can be nearly the retail price of the bottle it was just poured from. So, if you’re buying per glass my friends, choose wisely.
I’d like to also advise you on this; avoid the house wine! Period. Unless you're in Italy, never drink the house slosh. If you’ve ever been to a networking event or mixer and even most ‘galas’ (I use that term very loosely), they all go for the same cheap wine, and it’s awful. So, the next time you find yourself even considering the ‘house wine’ just remember your last business event. It’s that bad. It’s on tap, and it’s bound to give you a damn headache so drink at your own risk. I’m not kidding. You’re better off bringing your own bottle and taking the corkage fee. That said, just call ahead and ask what the fee is because at some restaurants the corkage could be more than the bottle you're bringing.
I’ve given you lots to chew on so far (literally) about drinking wine while dining out, but we still have this month’s review to tackle, and it’s a good one. In fact, it’s a little ‘hidden gem’. It’s one I scored while dining out at a small Italian restaurant in Long Beach, Ca. with my old friend Tommy. Whenever I’m out with friends, be it one or ten, they inevitably hand me the wine list. My one question is always, “What’s the budget?” From that point, it takes about two minutes for me to find something I’m certain they’ll all like. I take this very seriously. After all, my wine critic reputation is on the line, so I really need to get it right. The only time I failed, it turned out was not my fault. I chose a rare vintage year Sonoma Pinot, and when it was poured, I had a friend test the pour. Her face winced. I asked to see the bottle and realized they pulled the wrong vintage. It was only two years younger than the bottle we’d ordered, but the difference was significant. The lesson is this; when you’re the one ordering, be mindful and examine the bottle. Mistakes happen, and that’s how to avoid one. The restaurant didn’t charge us for that bottle, but I still kick myself for not taking the time to examine personally. Never again.
Tommy handed me the wine menu, and said, “Pick something good.” Since we were just eating a charcuterie plate, I wanted a nice cabernet. Near the bottom of the list, I see it. I know it’s’ there and I ignore it. I looked over the rest of the list and saw my old favorites at a fair price for the type of place it is. I closed the menu, looked up at Tommy and told him, “I found one, and she’s a gem. A hidden one.” To make him understand the beauty of the wine at the price listed, I told him the story of the winery.
PlumpJack was co-founded by Gordon Getty, the son of J. Paul Getty. Gordon is no slouch. He’s a famous composer and philanthropist. Getty along with Gavin Newsom, the current Lieutenant Governor of California, founded the PlumpJack winery in 1997 when they acquired 53 acres of vineyards on Oakville Cross Road. PlumpJack was the first Napa Valley producer to use screw caps. The winery name comes from PlumpJack, a reference to Shakespeare’s character Sir John Falstaff, who is mentioned in five plays by William Shakespeare and appears on stage only in three of them.
After my mini-dissertation, Tommy looked at me and said, “How much?” I said, “It’s listed at $90.” He then asked, “What’s it retail for?” I said, “About $100 - $120.” We ordered and toasted to what would be a long night of pub crawling through Belmont Shore and a recollection of the friendship we’ve had since high school. Good friends + Great wines + Unforgettable adventures. That’s life.
So, in closing, when you’re dining out, and you want to order wine, here’s a simple, but useful rule of thumb; Do your homework. Go with a price in mind. Drink what you like. Go with good friends. Enjoy your time out. That’s it!
Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Produced by: Plumpjack
Winemaker: Tony Biagi
City: Oakville, Napa Valley
Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon
Appearance (Color): Black cherry red
Aroma (Complexity): Toasted Walnut, Fig, Raisin
Body (Texture and Weight): Heavy (bold)
Taste (Balance of Flavor): Pear, Strawberry, Forest
Finish (What lingers): Fig and Cherry
Food Paring: Charcuterie plate
Serving Temperature: 64°
Drink now through 2028
Final Rating: 94
The Y9 Point Rating System
Wine Score | How Good the Wine Is
95-100 Classic: an extraordinary wine
90-94 Outstanding: wine with superior character & style
Instagram: A new feature that I’ m adding to my articles is highlighting an Instagram user that I follow. Since my focus this month is restaurant service, I thought I’ d point out an excellent sommelier who helps keep the fantastic wine list at ‘ Spago Beverly Hills’ exciting. Do yourself a favor and follow: Cristienorman_somm
John Turi has had an impulsive career as a writer, wine critic, and artist. He has two published books of short fiction and poetry. He is a former child actor with the anxiety to prove it. He began college with a major in Mortuary Science, later switched to Creative Writing, and, finally finished at a free love hippie art college in Southern California with a degree in Graphic Design and Marketing. During his college years he worked in the wine industry and acquired a delicate palate for varietals. For the last 20 years he has become a private rare book and wine collector. He desires California Pinot Noir from Sonoma County in Northern California. As a way to pay for his wine and book collection he works as a Senior Marketing Manager for one of the largest adult sex toy companies in the world. For the good of his sanity, he is a columnist at ConnotationPress.com, where he writes a monthly wine column featuring only the best bottles. He currently resides in Southern California with his beautiful wife Shawn Marie, a motivational speaker for female entrepreneurs. Enjoy John's latest book 'A Drinker With A Writing Problem - A Wine Lover's Retrospective' available at Amazon in softcover, ebook and audio book formats.