How to Pick Wine at a Restaurant
By Laura Fagan Published January 2022
Whether it is a romantic lunch for two at a French café or a large dinner party at a steakhouse – knowing how to pick wine at a restaurant can make the difference between an everyday meal or a memorable experience. Just as the menu will differ from kitchen to kitchen, so too will the wine list and pairing options. In fact, there is not one, single, correct way to organize a wine list. Some lists are organized by varietal and others are progressive – listing wines from lightest to fullest body. Some restaurants feature wines that are complementary to the style of food or preparation method while other restaurants present a list of wildcards. The offerings and organization of wine lists are diverse; and while that makes for several pairing options, it can also be overwhelming. Having just a few trade tips, however, will help you select a good red wine or a good white wine from any list. Two of our ABC wine experts, Nathan Dale and Paul Quaglini, share their experience and expertise to guide you in selecting the perfect wine from any list.
What to Consider Before You Browse
Before you even browse a wine list, there are a few factors to sort out before selecting. Will you be ordering wine for just yourself, or a group? This makes a difference in deciding to order by the glass or bottle. Another factor is your budget and knowing what you want to spend. Most wine lists have options in several price points. And, of course, you want the wine to complement the course or meal. Paul recommends surveying what the group is ordering to get a pulse on what varietal or style of wine will pair the best. For example, if most of the party is ordering red meat at a steakhouse – seek out a bold cabernet, red Bordeaux, barolo or a brunello on the wine list. If you find yourself at a fresh seafood restaurant, Nathan suggests a sauvignon blanc, albarino, or a quality pinot grigio. Now if that sounds like a lot to consider - Nathan’s strategy is to order a glass of sparkling wine to start. This will give you time to unpack the rest of the wine list as you sip, converse and enjoy an aperitif.
Should I Try Something New?
Even wine enthusiasts tend to be creatures of habit. It is tempting to order labels or varietals that we are familiar with, but if you find yourself with an exciting, curated list in hand – Paul and Nathan encourage you to try something new! Venturing beyond your familiarity may surprise you with a new favorite. Nathan shares a few swaps for those of us who enjoy classic varietals. If you are a champion of chardonnay – try a viognier. Get a gamay instead of a pinot noir or instead of your traditional big cabernet – opt for a barolo. These selections are off the beaten path, Nathan adds, but worthy of sipping and sampling.
Want to learn more about wine? Check out our YouTube channel for lessons on wine terminology, pouring and more.
What About Wine for Date Night?
If you are on a date and dining at a new restaurant – Paul suggests doing a bit of homework beforehand. Pull up the restaurant’s wine list online and have some suggestions ready to discuss with your date. That way you aren’t buried in browsing a wine list instead of conversing. Better yet, avoid any awkward silences by trying some of the restaurant’s selections ahead of time. ABC stocks thousands of labels so you can shop, sample and then offer descriptions and pairing options on your date.
“You may fall in love with the wine as much as your date” – Paul Quaglini
Don’t rush – take your time with a new wine list. Start with a glass of sparkling wine to enjoy as you browse the rest of the list with bubbles in hand.
Ask for a sample – if the wine is offered by the glass, many restaurants will offer a sample to sip and help you select.
Seek out the server or sommelier – when in doubt, ask! If you aren’t sure about pairing or pronunciation, ask the server or sommelier for guidance.
Get acquainted ahead of time – before you dine, pull up the restaurant’s wine list from their website. Visit your local ABC store to grab some stand out labels from our shelves to try ahead of time or browse our selection and order online.
Restaurants are using their wine lists to differentiate themselves - offering exclusive labels, unique collections and phenomenal pairing experiences. With Paul and Nathans tips, you’ll be ready to sit and select like a pro, and most importantly, enjoy and celebrate.