Once you decide between red and white, what’s next?
Consider the regions. If the wine list has 20 wines from Italy, five from California, and one from Austria, it’s a safe bet that the sommelier’s or chef’s passion is Italian wines. So focus on that portion of the list. Chances are, he has sampled a lot of those wines and can spot a quality bottle. Based on how much you want to spend, you can get your list down to a few. Then ask the server, “What can you tell me about these?” Read his body language as he responds; go with the wine that makes him the most animated.
Any tips on lower-priced wines?
Yes. Bypass the second-cheapest wine. People pick it because they don’t want to come off as a tightwad. But in my experience, you’re better off with the least costly option, which tends to be priced more appropriately and taste just as good, if not better. Avoid Chardonnay, too. It’s America’s favorite wine, and as a result, most places overcharge for it. As a rule, imported wines are a better value than those from California.
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How do you know which winery or producer to pick?
It’s impossible to make judgments across the board, but skip main-stream names that you recognize from the liquor store. You can enjoy them at home for less money.
Memorize these phrases: “Argentinian Malbec.” “Austrian Riesling.” “French Beaujolais.” These are always a good choice because they’re among the signature wines of those regions.
Does the vintage matter?
While some wines are meant to age (like a fine Bordeaux), most are meant to be consumed as soon as they’re released. In other words, the more recent, the better. If the list features a 2011 wine and the waitperson presents a 2010 bottle, the restaurant is trying to unload its backlog. Politely ask the server to bring you the newer one.
Is it smarter to order by the bottle or by the glass?
By the bottle. At many restaurants, when a wine is served by the glass, the bottle is left open for hours, which turns the flavor stale. (Most wine bars are an exception: They use tools that pull the oxygen out of the bottle so the wine stays fresh between pourings.) A whole bottle is also a better deal, as restaurants tend to price glasses so that just one covers the entire cost of the bottle.
The wine has arrived. What now?
Look at the wine in your glass to check that there are no flecks of cork. Then sniff it. If the wine smells like wet newspaper or vinegar, that’s a problem. Ask for a new bottle.
Is it ok to ignore the list and go for the house wine?
Absolutely. It’s often delicious! Ask the waiter if he’s willing to show you the bottle. If he is, that’s a sign that he’s proud to reveal the brand and that it’s probably very palatable.