Key Tips to Enjoy Your Wine Drinking Experience
Picture you on a date.
You wanted to do something special for your first dinner date, and you’re at a plush fine-dining restaurant in town.
Your date asks you, “Let’s order wine, shall we?”
And you start to sweat a little. You don’t want to look like a complete loser here; no one does, in fact. Excusing yourself, you go to the restroom and whip out your phone to google: “How to order wine like a PRO at a restaurant”
Yes, and this article pops up. So let’s figure this out together.
This article is structured in a way to address the FAQs about ordering wine at a restaurant and is backed by historical context.
Know your categories
Generally, wines at a fine-dining restaurant would fall under these 4-categories:
A. House wines
Most of the time, a restaurant’s “house wines” are low-quality choices that make the owner the most money. The cost-per-ounce is often the primary metric for a restaurant owner when selecting a house wine.
These wines typically consist of a white and a red, and there may also be a sparkling wine present on occasion. These are the wines that are brought to your table when you merely request a glass of white wine or a glass of red wine.
You have the option of purchasing house wines by the glass or in a carafe, which is a pitcher without handles and a large mouth. Prices per glass can range anywhere from $4 to $10, with the average falling between $6 and $8.
If you’re looking to order them, don’t. Because very few places have good house wines. Unless you’re at a restaurant in the Napa valley or Sonoma, don’t even bother.
B. Premium Wines
The word ‘premium’ shouldn’t be taken at face value. Because any wine that sells for more than $7 a bottle is categorized as “premium”, This isn’t directly related to taste or quality.
If you are to order premium red or white wines, go for the glass, especially if you only intend to drink one or two glasses. Ask how many ounces are poured into each glass (usually between 5 and 8 ounces) and compare the price to that of a bottle of the same wine that is 25.4 ounces (750 milliliters) in capacity if there are two or more of you ordering the same wine by the glass.
This is especially important if you think you might want refills. There are occasions when the price of the entire bottle is equivalent to that of only three glasses. We’ll leave the math to you.
C. Standard-list wines
As the name suggests, these are the standards. They fall somewhere between house wines, premium wines, and reserves and provide a standard wine drinking experience with certainty of quality and taste.
They come in all sizes, shapes, and degrees of detail, accuracy, and user friendliness. You can easily check out the descriptions, a few reviews online, or check with the sommelier on a brief background on the standard-list bottles.
And yes, going by the bottle would be a good idea here.
D. Special or Reserve-list wines
These are the crème de la crème, or the best wines, the restaurant has to offer. Even though these are usually reserved for the serious wine connoisseurs and the typical “high Rollers,” you should try them on special occasions.
Also, an interesting thing to note here is that not all restaurants might have this list. In some cases, if you’re not paying for the meal or if you seriously want to impress a client or a date, you may want to enter this territory.
But be as cautious as possible before making a choice here. Ask the sommelier or a wine expert in your circle in advance about the menu, though: Any mistake you could make here would definitely be a costly one.
Ordering by the glass vs. A full bottle
The fundamental question most newbies have is whether we should order wine by the glass or as a full bottle.
We get that the bottle might be the more lucrative option for a group, but it is heavily dependent on how much you plan on drinking, what you’re eating, and if the city you’re staying in offers you the provision to take home the sealed bottle.
Talk to the group and make a mental note of what they wish to order. You might not enjoy your sauvignon blanc when your peppercorn-crusted steak arrives, or your zinfandel will taste weird after having a few pieces of lemon-poached fish.
If everyone orders a different dish in a group, the safe bet would be to stay away from expensive bottles and stick to the ones that blend well with their choice of food.
The Sommelier: Your best friend
If you’ve already sized up the wine list but are still clueless on what to order, be ready to ask for help. Most fine dining establishments have a sommelier who is paid a lot of money to help you make the right choice.
Sommeliers (pronounced soh-mel-yays) are your best friend.
A sommelier is a wine expert who has been trained and usually works at a high-end or fine dining restaurant. Sommeliers are in charge of everything to do with wine service in a restaurant, from preparing the wine list to serving customers on the floor.
The History Behind Sommeliers🕴️
The old French words “sommerier,” “somier,” and “bête de somme” may have given rise to the word “sommelier,” which means a person who serves wine. In this old French, a “bête de somme” was a “beast of burden,” and a “sommelier” was the person in charge of it.
Later, the word became more specific and came to mean the person in charge of carrying the luggage of the French royal family when they traveled (1316). During the time of Louis XIV, the sommelier was the individual in charge of moving the court’s luggage.
He was the official in the home of a great lord who chose the wines, table settings, and desserts. The sommelier checked his lord’s wine for poison with his tastevin, a silver saucer on a thick silver chain that he wore around his neck.
He also made sure there was food. If the sommelier died, the meal wouldn’t be served.
One of the most important parts of being a sommelier is coming up with good pairings of food and wine. This is done behind the scenes with the help of other people on the culinary team.
Some restaurants even consider a sommelier’s job the same as that of a chef de cuisine. This is especially true in restaurants with long wine lists with 200 or more wines.
You are missing out on the years of experience and wine tasting a sommelier brings to the table by simply not utilizing their service.
What to expect at a Wine Presentation
Presenting the bottle is a ritual among wine enthusiasts and connoisseurs. The whole process might look and sound a tad bit theatrical and, at times, funny if you’re not into such grand gestures, especially from the restaurant staff.
The way this bottle presentation is set up is an important part of serving wine and shouldn’t be ignored. If the sommelier misunderstood the guest and brought the wrong wine, the guest might complain about it later.
This bottle-presentation ceremony also shows respect for the guest, no matter how much he knows about wine, and adds to the mood of the dining room.
This is what happens during wine presentation, in this order:
1. The server or sommelier presents the bottle for inspection:
Here, you must scrutinize the label to ensure that it’s the right bottle. You don’t want to later realize that the bottle isn’t what you asked the sommelier for. Feel the bottle and get a sense of the temperature of the bottle.
Also, a pro tip, this is where you can use your knowledge on wine history to “wow” your guests.
2. The server or sommelier removes the bottle cork for inspection:
This part is a bit overlooked as a bad cork: a wet, shriveled, very dry, or crumbly cork can alter the taste of your drink altogether. If the cork makes you nervous, wait until you’ve finished the drink before telling the sommelier.
The History of Corks 🍾
For at least 2000 years before the actual cork bottle was invented, the Greeks and Romans knew a thing or two about cork bottles and used it as stoppers with a film of oil to keep the air out.
It was in 1632; when the new English glass bottle came into the picture, that the need for a decent cork stopper arose. The “cork” is mentioned in a lot of English literature from the 16th century.
In Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1600), Rosalind, the heroine and protagonist of the play, says, “I pray thee take thy cork out of my mouth.”
3. The server/sommelier decants wine (if required)
If you don’t know what I mean by “decanting wine,” it means to slowly pour wine from the bottle into a different container (a “decanter”) without stirring up the sediment on the bottom. In general, when the wine splashes into the decanter, the air mixes with it. This makes some smells go away and others become stronger.
Wines that might require decanting 🍷
The types of wine that benefit from decanting are full-bodied, high-tannin wines, and aged wines. The aeration while decanting causes these wines to be less harsh and more expressive.
These wines include:
- Bordeaux and Bordeaux blends
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Syrah (Shiraz) and its blends
- Nebbiolo wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco
- Red Rioja
- Aged Madeira
You might wonder, “Is this absolutely necessary?”
Well, ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. Some wines don’t need to be decanted, but doing so for the ones that do will give you the best drinking experience. Talk to your sommelier, as they know it best.
4. The server/sommelier pours you a 30ml and wait
Now the host gets the first pour out of the bottle. Give the glass a swirl, a sniff, and a sip. All eyes would be on the host at this point, and this is where you can nod your approval, or return the bottle if you sense something is off.
At this point, the sommelier may either give you a replacement experincebottle, or you can go for a different bottle altogether.
Whatever the case, you start again from the top.
We understand that the first time you order can be intimidating, but don’t be afraid to try it and have the best wine drinking experience possible.