Ordering wine at a restaurant can be intimidating—like you’re being thrown into a complex ritual without knowing the rules. No one likes looking foolish in any type of social situation (and ordering wine at a restaurant IS a very social situation!) but if you know the basics, it’s pretty straightforward.
Bottle or Glass?
The age-old question—get a bottle or order by the glass? In general, ordering by the bottle is more cost-effective. But there are reasons to order wine by the glass:
- If your table won’t drink a full bottle
- If you want more than one wine during your dinner
- If you and your dinner companion(s) are ordering foods that are difficult to pair with a single wine
Restaurants typically serve two different categories of wine: house wines and list wines. Very high-end restaurants may also have a reserve list you can ask to see if you’re feeling like a big spender.
The house wine is what you get when you just ask for red or white wine without any further specification. While house wines at quality restaurants are usually perfectly acceptable, they’re never extraordinary. The house wine has to appeal to many people, which means it can’t be too interesting. Besides, even the best restaurants choose house wines that are as cheap as they can get away with. House wines are usually available by the glass or carafe, a wide-necked vessel that holds a bottle’s worth of wine.
The Wine List
A restaurant might have 15 wines on its list—or 150. Every entry on the list will tell you the name of the wine, the winery that produced it, the vintage, and the price. If a wine is available by the glass and by the bottle, the wine list will show prices for both. All wine lists, long or short, organize wines by type (white, red, etc.). Some lists may also organize by:
- Country of origin
- Body (light-bodied wines on top, full-bodied below)
One good way to choose wine from a list is to pick one that you’ve never had before but that’s made from a grape variety you know you like. Another is to describe to your waiter what you like in a wine and ask for a recommendation. To get more expert advice, you could ask to speak to the person at the restaurant who manages the wine list. Higher-end restaurants may employ a fulltime wine manager known as a sommelier.
Bringing Your Own Wine
Many restaurants allow you to bring your own wine, which the waiter then uncorks and serves to you. For this service restaurants typically charge a corkage fee that typically ranges from $10 to $25.
If you want to bring wine to a restaurant, ALWAYS call first and make sure it’s okay—some restaurants don’t allow patrons to bring their own wine. When you call, make sure that the restaurant doesn’t already carry the wine you want to bring. It’s bad form to bring a wine that a restaurant carries on its list.
The Wine Serving Ritual
When wine is served in restaurants, the waiter usually follows a specific procedure:
- The waiter presents the bottle to you: This allows you to check that the wine is actually what you ordered. Really do check—waiters can make mistakes, so the bottle could be the wrong vintage or even the wrong wine. Also take the chance to touch the bottle and test its temperature. The bottle should be cool to the touch (white wines slightly colder than red).
- The waiter removes the cork and presents it to you: The condition of the cork can hint whether a wine has spoiled. If the cork smells bad or seems either shriveled or wet, the wine may be bad.
- The waiter pours a little wine into your glass: Sniff and taste the wine to see whether it’s gone bad. If it has gone bad (and wines sometimes do go bad), be kind but not too apologetic and send it back. Swirl it around a bit and notice if it sheets down or if the wine comes back down in streaks. Sheeting isn’t good and is usually indicative of a cheap wine. Streaks (also called “legs”) indicate a little higher alcohol content and usually mean a better quality wine.
- If the wine is fine, tell the waiter to proceed: The waiter will fill your guests’ glasses first, then yours.
The most important thing to remember is that although you may not be an expert, you can express what you like and the price range you’d like to stay within and then let the waiter or sommelier make a suggestion. You’re in control. Sample their recommendation and if you don’t like it, speak up. If you do like it, enjoy your selection!