How to Order Wine at a Restaurant Without Embarrassing Yourself

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

Ordering 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.

carafeHouse Wines

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
  • Varietal
  • Price
  • 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!

How to Pair Wine with Grilled Food

Tired of the same-old-same-old when it comes to the grill? A lot of people are. That’s why more and more of us are grilling foods that traditionally have been cooked using other methods. Today, we’re grilling fish, fruits, vegetables, and even pizza! It makes sense, especially in the summer, to use your outside grill should you want to avoid heating up the kitchen. Of course, even in the cold of winter most of us still enjoy flavors from the grill!

Grilled foods simply taste great and when you’ve grilled something that you’ve traditionally baked, roasted, fried, boiled, broiled, sautéed, or eaten raw, the flavors will potentially pair with wine differently. Here are some fantastic foods to grill and the best wine to pair with them:

Grilled Food and Wine

Fish with Pinot Noir

If you’ve (wisely) selected to grill some wild Alaskan Salmon or Arctic char, a good Pinot Noir from Caymus Vineyards will pair nicely since it won’t overwhelm your fish’s delicate flavors. Try grilling other delicate seafood and pairing it with your Pinot Noir as well. Great examples include:

  • shrimp
  • swordfish
  • oysters (yes!)

Pinot Noir can also pair well with heavier foods such as steak or sausages.

Grilled Pizza and Rosé

With its sweeter flavors and lower alcohol content, a rosé from Wine.com will be a delicious palate pleaser when paired with a pizza cooked on your grill. Rosé will also match well with tomato based pasta dishes – try grilling your tomatoes first then making your sauce with them. Simply delicious!

Grilled Summer Salad and Grüner Veltliner

When you head over to Wine.com, search for this wonderful white wine. Its earthiness and minerality will pair very well with a grilled summer salad. It is light bodied and extremely food friendly so when you grill chicken or vegetables to put in a summer salad, Grüner Veltliner will make it so much better … plus you can buy this extraordinary wine for less than $20!

Grilled Chicken or Fruit and Chardonnay

Chardonnay’s rich but delicate’s nature can have hints of apples, pear, and citrus notes that will compliment a delicious grilled chicken. Check out Laithwaite’s incredible selection of Chardonnay’s (as little as $12/bottle) and start grilling your peaches, strawberries, pineapple, and of course, chicken.

Grilled Portabellas and Cabernet

Cabernet pairs well with grilled portabella mushrooms, grilled eggplant, and other foods with dark sauces. Laithwaite also has a great selection of Cabernet wines that will take your grilling to the next level. Other grilled root vegetables such as potatoes, beets, and carrots as well as many heavy smoked cheeses will also pair well with your Laithwaite Cabernet.

Don’t Be Afraid to Use Your Grill!

Grilled food will pair very nicely with wine! Virtually anything can be cooked on your grill and we all know that all foods can be paired with the appropriate wine!

Wine Glasses

Would you believe that the glass you use to drink wine actually makes a big difference in how the wine tastes? It’s true! One of the best things you can do to make sure that people enjoy the wine you serve is to serve the wine in quality glasses.

The best wine glasses are:

  • Transparent – One of the pleasures of wine is enjoying its color and clarity. The best wine glasses are clear.
  • Long-stemmed – Stems allow you to hold the glass away from the actual wine, ensuring that the heat from your hand doesn’t warm the wine.
  • Thin-lipped – A thin, properly formed lip directs the wine to the correct areas of your tongue, accentuating the flavors of the wine. A badly formed lip makes a wine taste harsher than it actually is.
  • Crystal – The best stemware isn’t called “crystal” just to make it sound fancy. It really is made from crystal. Crystal is better than glass for serving wine because crystal is a rougher material. The roughness generates friction against the pouring wine that helps aerate the wine and release its flavor and aroma.

How to Choose Wine Glasses

Wine glasses come in a multitude of shapes. One company alone makes 64 different kinds—a glass for nearly every type of wine. Though that’s a bit extreme even for the most demanding wine connoisseur, serious wine drinkers tend to own at least four different types.

White wine glass – Glasses for white wine should be small (about 10 oz). The small size limits surface area, which in turn prevents the wine from warming quickly.

Bordeaux glass – Tulip-shaped Bordeaux glasses work well with “big,” rich, and intense red wines. Because they’re larger than white wine glasses, they give the wine’s bouquet room to develop.

Burgundy glass – Though bigger in size than Bordeaux glasses, Burgundy glasses are actually for “smaller,” subtler wines such as Pinot Noir. The larger glass size gives the wine’s bouquet even more room to develop.

Champagne flute – These glasses are long and narrow to control the bubbles in Champagne and other sparkling wines.

Rather than buy all four, many people choose instead to buy only two types of wine glass: white wine glasses and Bordeaux glasses. If you want to buy just one type of wine glass and use it for all sorts of wine, the most versatile is the Bordeaux glass.

How to Wash Crystal Stemware

Because crystal is rougher than glass, it tends to absorb aromas and needs special cleaning care—which means it must be washed by hand, not in a dishwasher. Wash the stemware both before and after use in hot sudsy water. The best way to test if it’s clean is to smell it: if you smell nothing, it’s ready to use; if you smell something, it’s back to the suds.

How to Serve Wine

Few people will complain if you serve wine at a party. Even so, there are a few guidelines you can follow to make sure the wine you serve is the best it can be.

Wine Serving Temperature

Different types of wine taste best when served at particular temperatures.

Type of Wine Temperature Instructions
Sparkling wines 45–50°F (7–10°C) Chill for about an hour.
Rosés and blushes 50–55°F (10–13°C) Chill for about 45 minutes.
Inexpensive white wines 50–55°F (10–13°C) Chill for about 45 minutes.
Fine white wines 55–60°F (13–15°C) Chill for about an hour.
Light-bodied red wines 58–62°F (14–16.5°C) Chill for 30 minutes at most.
Most red wines 60–65°F (15–18°C) Chill for 15–30 minutes at most.
Dessert wines 60–65°F (15–18°C) Chill for 15–30 minutes at most.

How to Aerate and Decant Wine

The flavor and aroma of many wines improve when the wine comes into contact with air. To aerate a wine, pour it from the bottle into a carafe, a wide-mouthed pitcher that holds a bottle’s worth of wine.

Young, tannic red wines: Reds such as Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, and most Rhône Valley and Italian red wines need at least an hour of aeration.

Full-bodied white wines: Whites such as Burgundy and Bordeaux also benefit from a good aerating, though a half hour is usually enough.

Some older red wines and all older ports develop sediment over time as the tannins join together, harden, and drop out of solution. Though the sediment isn’t harmful, it can stick to your teeth. Such wines need to be decanted in order to remove the sediment.

To decant a wine that contains sediment, stand it upright for a day or two. The sediment will sink to the bottom. Then pour the wine very carefully into the decanter, leaving the last inch behind.

How to Serve Wines in Sequence

When accompanying multiple-course dinners, wines are traditionally served in the following sequence:

  • White wine before red wine
  • Dry wine before sweet wine
  • Light-bodied wine before full-bodied wine
  • Straightforward wine before complex wine

For instance: a white or light-bodied red with the hors d’oeuvres; a fuller-bodied, more intense and complex white or red with the main course; and if you’re feeling ambitious, perhaps even a Port or Sherry with dessert.

How to Pull the Cork

Unfortunately, the most popular corkscrew currently on the market—the kind with wings that looks like a child making a snow angel—is not very good. But better corkscrews are out there. Here are three of the best:

Waiter’s corkscrew:

waiters corkscrew

Waiter’s corkscrews have curved or straight handles that contain a foldout lever, a metal spiral worm that twists into the cork, and a blade for cutting the foil that covers the cork. The key to using a waiter’s corkscrew is to make sure you twist the worm down through the center of the cork. Once you do, press the lever onto the top lip of the wine bottle and lift the cork by lifting the far end of the corkscrew. You can buy a quality waiter’s corkscrew for as little as $12.

Screwpull:

screwpull corkscrew

The Screwpull corkscrew is remarkably easy to use. Just keep twisting the corkscrew in the same direction: the screw will insert itself into the cork and, once inserted, pull the cork from the bottle. A good Screwpull model costs about $25.

The Rabbit:

rabbit corkscrew

The Rabbit corkscrew (made by Metrokane) is even easier to use—it takes virtually all the effort out of removing a cork. Just push and pull on a lever, and the cork comes right out. The downside is that the device is pretty big and, at $50, a tad expensive for a corkscrew.

If Cork Gets in the Wine

Even with the best corkscrew in the world, you’ll probably still have a cork-pulling debacle once in a while.

If so: Fish out the bigger pieces with a cork retriever—a metal device with long, thin stiff rods that can be dipped into the wine bottle.
cork remover tool

 

 

 

 

Then pour the wine through a very fine strainer. If you don’t have a strainer, you can also use a coffee filter as long as you run filtered water through it first.

How to Pair Wine With Food

Because people almost always drink wine alongside food, it’s important to know that certain wines compliment certain foods better than others. So if you’re at a restaurant or throwing a dinner party, it never hurts to try to pair your wine with the food you’ll be eating.

Classic Wine and Food Pairing

In the not-so-distant past, there was a hard and fast rule about which wines to serve with which food: red wines with red meat; white wines with white meat. This rule existed for a reason: it generally worked. Red wine is usually heartier and richer than white wine, which means it matches better with heartier, more flavorful foods (such as red meat), while most white wines match better with more delicately flavored foods (such as chicken or fish). So if you’re making a beef stew and have only a few minutes to pick a wine to go with it, you won’t go wrong by following this rule and picking a rich, powerful red.

Modern Wine and Food Pairing

Rather than follow strict (and often overly simplistic) “rules” of food pairing, you can pair wine and food based on a finer understanding of how wine and food interact.

How Wine and Food Interact

The five main attributes of wine—its tannins, acidity, sweetness, body, and flavor—all affect the way the wine pairs with food.

Wine Attribute Hints for Pairing
Tanins Tannic wines, such as a California Cabernet and possibly a strong Merlot, will pair well with salty foods, slightly sour or bitter foods, and with protein-rich and fatty foods.
Acidity Acidic white wines, such as Sauvignon Blanc, tend to pair well with acidic, salty, oily, and fatty foods.
Sweetness Sweet wines, such as Riesling, pair well with slightly sweet foods. Dry, crisp wines (the opposite of sweeter wines) pair well with creamy or salty foods, as well as with Asian foods.
Body Full-bodied wines such as a French Bordeaux have higher alcohol content and pair well with heavy foods, whereas light wines pair well with more delicate foods. Full bodied wines have a heavier mouth-feel similar to milk whereas light bodied wines feel more like water in your mouth.
Flavor Wines tend to pair well with foods that have similar flavors. For instance, an earthy wine is likely to pair well with a dish that contains mushrooms.

The final rule of wine and food pairing is that there’s no single “right” answer. Don’t get intimidated looking for the perfect wine. Instead, follow the guidelines above, trust your instincts, try things out, and see what you like best.

How to Buy Wine

In some regions, wine is sold in supermarkets and bulk food stores as well as in specialty wine stores. In others, state or local laws require that wine be sold only in specialty stores.

Supermarkets and Wine

Supermarkets often have good prices on wines, so if your local store carries a wine you like, you’re in luck. But supermarket selection is usually limited and tends to include only wines from mega-wineries. Also, many supermarkets store wine improperly. Wine should never be refrigerated or stored upright (which can dry out the cork and cause the bottle to leak). If your supermarket does either of these things, you’re better off looking elsewhere.

Wine Stores

The best way to broaden your wine horizons is to find a good wine store and ask for recommendations or advice from the people who work there.

Here are a few signs of a good wine store:

1. Good selection

The wine in stock should range across different wine types, regions of origin, and price.

2. Good service

If a wine seller makes you feel dumb for asking questions, find someone who’ll help you learn.

3. Expertise

An expert wine seller will have firsthand knowledge of the tastes and qualities of the wines in the store. He or she will also be able to recommend wines based on your preferences for taste, structure, or texture, or simply based on other wines that you’ve liked. If a wine seller consistently recommends wines you don’t like, you may want to look elsewhere.

4. Proper storage conditions

Wine should be stored in cool, dry, dark, constant conditions. It should not be placed in direct sunlight or near a cooling or heating source. In addition, wine should be stored lying down (as opposed to upright) to keep the corks moist and prevent bottle leakage.

5. Good prices

Many wine buyers don’t mind spending extra money out of loyalty and appreciation for a wine seller who really cares about wine. Even so, every so often you should still check to make sure the store prices aren’t exorbitant.

Wine Ratings

The wine industry has developed a rating system that scores wines on their quality. Some wine stores post these ratings next to the wines they sell.

  • 95–100: Extraordinary
  • 90–94: Excellent
  • 85–89: Very good
  • 80–84: Above average
  • 75–79: Average
  • 70–74: Below average
  • 69 or below: Poor

If you find a cheap, highly rated wine, you may have found a steal. Still, keep in mind that the rating reflects someone else’s taste, and taste is subjective. The highest rated wines may not always be your favorites.

European White Wines

As with European red wines, the best way to find out if you like a particular European white wine is to try it.

Country Region Wine Name Grape(s)
Austria Multiple regions Grüner Veltliner Grüner Veltliner
France Bordeaux Bordeaux Blanc Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon
Burgundy White Burgundy, Chablis Chardonnay
Rhône Condrieu Viognier
Loire Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé Sauvignon Blanc
Vouvray Chenin Blanc
Germany Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheingau Riesling Riesling
Greece Peloponnesus Patras Rhoditis
Italy Piedmont Gavi Cortese
Veneto Soave Garganega, Trebbiano, others
Portugal Minho Vinho Verde Alvarinho (same as Albariño)
Spain Rías Baixas Rioja Albariño (same as Alvarinho)

European Red Wines

The best way to get to know whether you like a particular European red wine is to try it. But which should you sample first? One way is to try a European red made from grapes used in varietal wines you like. The following table will help.

Country Region Wine Name Grape(s)
France Bordeaux Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, Petite Verdot
  Burgundy Burgundy Pinot Noir
    Beaujolais Pinot Noir
  Rhône Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie Syrah
    Châteauneuf-du-Pape Grenache, Syrah, others
       
Italy Campania Taurasi Aglianico
  Basilicata Aglianico del Vulture Aglianico
  Piedmont Barolo, Barberesco Nebbiolo
    Gattinara Nebbiolo, Bonarda
  Tuscany Chianti Sangiovese, Canaiolo, others
    Carmignano Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon
    Super-Tuscans Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese
       
Spain Rioja Rioja Tempranillo, Grenache, others

White Wine Varietals

Red wines aren’t the only grapes that have varietals, white wines cultivated in the United States, South America, and Australia are also named for the type of grape used in their production.

This table covers some of the most popular white wine varietals. It explains their general characteristics and lists the regions that produce the best wines of each variety.

Name Description Regions
Albariño / Alvarinho Crisp, with high acidity, and medium-bodied. Silky, with apple or apricot flavors. Rías Baixas, Spain, and Minho, Portugal (where the varietal is called Alvarinho).
Chardonnay Dry, well balanced, and complex, with fruit flavors ranging from apple to tropical. Most Chardonnay (except Chablis) is also oaky. Europe, North America, South America, Australia, South Africa. Best from Burgundy and Chablis, France.
Chenin Blanc Dry to semi-dry, and crisp. Oily in texture, with hints of fruit and spice. Australia, California, Chile, South Africa. Best from Loire Valley, France.
Gewürtztraminer Rich, full-bodied, and soft. Tends to be dry, with fruity and floral flavors, and hints of spice. United States, Australia, Austria, Germany, France. Best from Alsace, France.
Muscat Light-bodied and soft. Ranges from dry to sweet, with intense flavors of raisin. Austria, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece. Best from Alsace, France, and Austria.
Pinot Blanc Straightforward, crisp, dry, and full, with high acidity. Flavors of pears, apples, and melons. Austria, Germany, France, Italy, California. Best from California and Alsace, France.
Pinot Gris /

Pinot Grigio

Full-bodied, rich, dry, and soft in acidity. Oaky, with hints of vanilla and smoke, and sometimes citrus, pine, and floral flavors. Italy, Austria, Germany (where the varietal is called Ruländer), Oregon, California. Best from Alsace, France.
Riesling Light-bodied and firm. Can be sweet or dry. Has flavors of apple, melon, honey, and spice. Australia, Austria, Germany, France, United States. Best from Germany and California.
Sauvignon Blanc Light-bodied and crisp. Can be either sweet or dry. Flavors range from appley to citrusy, with herbal, grassy, and mineral undertones. Can also be oaky. California, Australia, South America, Australia, Italy, France. Best from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, France.
Sémillon Full-bodied and sweet, with fruity, nutty flavors and an oily texture. Excellent in blends, particularly with Sauvignon Blanc. California, South America, South Africa, Australia (where it’s used as a varietal). In France it’s blended with Sauvignon Blanc to make Sauternes.
Viognier Dry, with low acidity, medium- to full-bodied, and complex. Intense flavors ranging from apricot to a buttery cream to smoke. Primarily the Rhône region of France. Also Australia, California, Brazil.

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