When we go to a restaurant and are handed the wine list, it can be intimidating, particularly if the list is large and complex.  The fancier the restaurant, the larger the list.  But you can have some fun with a wine list if you know a few secrets.

The wine list is the creation of the Sommelier or perhaps the wine director of the restaurant and depending on the nature of the restaurant, the approach of the Somm and the wine budget, you will see very different lists.  Some lists will be encyclopedic and others a bit thin with limited and focused selections. But there are some markers of a good wine list. It will represent the theme of the restaurant well, have a range of prices, some reliable stand-bys, a couple fun wild card wines and a few epic wines.

Secret 1: Test The Mark-Up

The first thing I do when I look at a wine list is find a wine I know well and know the price.  I then compare it to the price on the list.  You only have to do this for one wine to get a feeling for the mark-up.  For example, I am on the mailing list for Williams Seylem wines and buy their 2015 Eastside Neighbors Pinot Noir for $59 a bottle; at retail it is closer to $80 a bottle.  I was recently at a restaurant that had it on the list at $185 or about three times wholesale price and 2.3 times retail price, which is a fair mark-up.  When the mark-up is excessive, I tend to order a bit less wine in protest unless I am with clients and cannot do that.

Secret 2: Drink with the Theme

There is a simple rule of pairing – “what grows together, goes together”.  There is a reason Italian wines are spectacular with Italian food.  They complement and offset each other well, like the way the tight acidity of a Chianti cuts through a rich Bolognese sauce.

So look at the type of restaurant and find a wine in your price range from that part of the world and experiment!  I go to a fancy Greek restaurant sometimes and while I rarely drink Greek wines – I do there, and they are fantastic with the food.

Secret 3: Prices for all Wallets

On a well-designed wine list, there should be something for every wallet.  If you are a college kid out on a fancy date with new girlfriend or a big-shot executive out to impress some clients, the list should have something for each of you.  Know what you want to spend and don’t feel badly about ordering it – sometimes there are gems with amazing price to quality ratio at the bottom of the list.  And sometimes, those big wines with the big reputations don’t live up to expectations.   So name your price and stick to it.

Secret 4: Don’t forget By The Glass

When I first started entertaining in restaurants, the wine by the glass programs were anemic and really didn’t have good wine.  This has changed.  The wines by the glass are an opportunity to showcase the skill of the Sommelier in picking good, well priced wines that work with the food.  From my point of view, it’s a great way to try a wine I haven’t had before without making the commitment to a bottle.  So if you want a no strings attached way to try a wine – grab the by the glass menu and try something new.  You might find a new wine you love.  It’s also a great way to moderate how much you are served.

Secret 5: Old Stand-bys

Like an old flame, or perhaps a moth to a flame, there are some wines that we keep coming back to because we know they are reliably good and won’t disappoint in the glass.  That Silver Oak, Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon may not be the world beating wine, but there is a reason it’s on a lot of wine lists.  It’s reasonably priced and delivers good value for the drinker. You should taste and know two or three popular wines that appear on many wine lists that you like and have them ready to select in a pinch.  If nothing jumps off the list at you or you are concerned about picking a bad wine in front of clients, feel free to pick up a reliable stand-by.

Secret 6: Epic Wines

On larger lists, when they have a particularly deep cellar there will be some epic wines.  These would be wines you might only taste once or twice in a lifetime.  Now clearly, you will want to use Secret #1 to determine if they are marking up the wine excessively, but with super high-end wines like this, there is less of a need to get the typical mark-up.  If your budget can swing a monster wine, perhaps for a major celebration or if you have a very generous expense account, it’s worth a go.  One caution, I would only do this with wine aficionados.  If your guest aren’t really into wine, leave the bottle in the cellar for a table that will all enjoy it (and save your money).

I was at an amazing restaurant with some clients and we were having a fancy dinner.  These were all wine people that appreciated good juice.  I found a 1982 Chateau Mouton Rothschild on the list at a bargain price, roughly what I could find it for retail.  Now this was not a cheap wine, but it was an amazing value and an epic wine.  We all enjoyed it and still talk about that wine and that dinner almost 10 years later.  Don’t forget to let the Somm have a little taste when you have an epic wine – you will have a friend for life.

Secret 7: Trust the Somm – Close Your Eyes and Jump

Finally, you have a friend in wine, the Sommelier.  Her job is to help you navigate the wine list and pick something excellent for you and your guests.  They have likely tasted every wine on the list.  Just give some guidance on what you like or if you are willing to go a bit crazy and let the Somm decide.  I have done this a few times and never been disappointed.  They will go out of their way to find something that matches the food and will be an amazing wine.

Use these 7 secrets and have a great time at your next dinner while getting the most out of the wine list.