It might be getting easier to choose a good bottle of wine when dining out these days, thanks to increasingly better organized and more descriptive wine lists, but it still can be a challenge. However, with more and more information online and a glut of great local, and imported, wine choices, selecting the right wine is more fun and less stressful than ever.
Most restaurants feature all, or much, of their wine lists online. Many will email them to you. Sommeliers and wine directors also are generally delighted to talk to you during non-peak times to help you choose a wine (and potentially spend more on a great wine than on dinner).
Everyone loves bubbles, and restaurants can impress guests by having a bottle chilling on their table when they arrive. It doesn’t need to be Champagne, either. Lovely proseccos from Italy, cavas from Spain and domestic California sparkling wines cost half the price of Champagne and are delicious.
Sparkling wines also tend to pair well with all kinds of lovely dishes that start a meal — oysters, salads and raw fish.
When ordering wine with a large group, you may want to choose something that works for everyone, including wines that are flexible in terms of food pairings and don’t have aggressive acidity or strong tannins.
Wines that have overall general appeal include pinot noirs, from almost anywhere in the world; not overly oaky chardonnays; and rustic reds. The kind of reds that step up to meat, but might overwhelm fish, include spicy syrahs (think the Rhone Valley of France, California and Washington); red blends and lower-alcohol zinfandels; and northern Italian wines such as Barbaresco and barbera.
Those who put the list together will have their own passions and favorite wine growing regions. Don’t be afraid to ask if they have found anything new lately or have new wines that are not on the list. It’s highly likely they just got back from Croatia, an obscure region of Spain or southern Italy. You might get to try something surprising and amazing that was not on your radar.
If a sommelier recommends something and you don’t love it, feel free to let him or her know. They should be ready to take it back, drink it for dinner themselves or serve it by the glass. Don’t let them encourage you to order something too expensive, which could be hard to return.
You can let the wine director know what your wine budget is in subtle way. You don’t have to let your date, or business partner, know that you don’t want to spend more than $60 a bottle. If you hold your finger underneath a specific price on the list and inquire about what is good in that range, they will have you covered.
Often the least expensive bottle can be great. Most guests are reluctant to order it, but that shouldn’t discourage you. The most frequently sold bottle on most restaurants’ lists is the second-to-least expensive, as it is seen as affordable, but not too bargain basement.
Liza B. Zimmerman is the principal of the Liza the Wine Chick, a writing and consulting business. She has been writing, educating and consulting about wine, cocktails and food for two decades. She has worked almost every angle of the wine and food business, from server and consultant to positions in distribution, education and sales.