Ordering Wine in Restaurants

June 14, 2011

Our wine ordering guide will put you at ease when faced with an intimidating restaurant wine list - the most common questions about ordering wine are answered here

Ordering wine at a restaurant can sometimes be a little intimidating, but with this list of helpful questions answered by the Wine Market Council, you'll be perusing the wine list with confidence and ordering with ease.

I'm at a loss when it comes to choosing a wine in a restaurant. Do you have any suggestions for wading through a wine list?

After you have decided what you will have to eat, consider the lightness or heaviness of the dish and the sauce. Keep in mind the following food and wine matching guidelines:

Match light wines with light foods (this can either be a light white wine or a light red wine)

Try a wine with just a touch of sweetness (called off-dry wine) with savory foods that have a bit of sweetness to them

If a food is acidic try a wine that is high in acid for balance

Bitter foods will accentuate bitterness in a wine so try a wine that is not overly tannic with bitter foods

More tannic wines will balance astringent foods.

If the wine list is organized by varietal, decide if you want to order red, white, or rosé to help cut down on your choices. If the wine list is progressive (wines are listed in order from lightest to fullest-bodied) you can then choose your wine by matching the lightness/heaviness of your food with body style of the wine. 

Why is wine in a restaurant more expensive than if I bought it at a retail store?

Many restaurants charge two to three times their cost for a bottle of wine. Some restaurants use a sliding scale: they will mark up a less expensive bottle of wine more than they will a more expensive one. There are also business-related reasons for the mark up: the cost of storing the wine, training qualified wine staff and wait staff, and the cost of replacing broken stemware. Some restaurants may also allow you to bring your own bottle of wine and charge a corkage fee. Many restaurants will also offer you a free sample of the house wine or a special wine they've chosen, and most restaurants will offer wines by the glass in a broad range of prices. Trying different wines by the glass can prove an inexpensive way to discover new wines you like.

At a restaurant what are you supposed to do when the server hands you the cork?

You don't need to sniff the cork if you don't want to. But by squeezing the bottom end of the cork, a little of the wine can be sniffed to be sure it smells like wine and does not have a moldy odor of tainted cork. The real proof, though, is in the smell and taste of the wine itself - let your own good taste be your guide. 

When is it OK to send a bottle of wine back in a restaurant?

Only when the bottle of wine is truly bad; that is "corked" or oxidized. A wine is not considered bad if you simply don't like it. If the wine is corked it will have an unpleasant corky or moldy taste. If it is oxidized (air has gotten by the cork), it will have an off taste or aroma reminiscent of sherry. If you think the wine is bad, inform your server; they should take it back. 

Is there specific etiquette I should follow when a bottle of wine is brought to my table in a restaurant? 

Here are the typical steps the server may go through when serving a bottle of wine, and how you may wish to respond:

1) They show the bottle, label showing, to the person who ordered the wine. This is just to make sure they brought you the correct bottle of wine. Check the wine label to make sure it is what you ordered.
2) They open the bottle and may hand you the cork or place it on the table. If they hand you the cork, you have no obligation to sniff it. If you do, you are simply making sure that the bottom of the cork, where the wine has been in contact, does not smell moldy (like wet cardboard). But you may politely decline when offered the cork and look forward to tasting the wine.
3) The server will then pour 1/3 of a glass of wine for you to taste. This is your chance to determine if the wine is bad or not. It rarely will be bad. You can swirl the wine to release the aroma if you like, smell it and taste it. 

When I am asked by the wine steward to taste a wine I’ve chosen at a restaurant, what am I supposed to look for?

After the wine steward or server pours you a taste of wine, it is your chance to determine if the wine is bad or not. It rarely will be bad. You can swirl the wine to release the aroma, smell it and taste it to make this determination. Or, you can simply taste it without any fanfare. If it would make you feel more comfortable and you are confident the wine is fine, you can pass on tasting the wine and prompt the server to serve it. 

Information courtesy of 
Wine Market Council.