One of the more uncomfortable situations is when you are at a dinner and the host hands you the wine list and asks you to pick. This usually happens when you are the guest of honor, and even more complex, when in a foreign country. This is fraught with risk. It’s very easy to embarrass yourself or your host with an inappropriate selection. The biggest risk is around getting a bottle at an acceptable price.
So, what do you do?
This one is very dependent on your relationship to the host and the level of the people in attendance.
If you know the host very well and are comfortable with them, you can ask how much they would like to spend on the bottle. When I do this, I’ll usually head over to the host with the wine list and put my finger on a price and ask if they are looking for something like this. If the price is acceptable, they’ll agree and if not, they’ll direct me to a different price level – higher or lower.
The other option in this situation is a less formal approach. Just ask the question, “How crazy do you want me to get with the wine?” Sometimes I’ll add, “Respectable?” or “Sorry, Bobby, Dad can’t afford tuition next semester?” Usually you get some solid direction from the response.
What if the situation is more formal or you don’t know the host well?
There is an expected level of spend for a bottle of wine in a restaurant with a senior audience (think presidents and business owners). The first rule is $100 a bottle. While that seems high, it does include the restaurant mark-up and is there are usually a few decent bottles within a few dollars of that figure. You’ll rarely get chewed out at this figure. If the audience is less senior, scale the price to $75 or even $40-50 a bottle. Unless you are given permission, you want to skew on the side of conservative prices.
There is another gauge that I’ll use and that is 2-2.5 times the average entree price. If I am in a fancy steak house where the average entree is $50-60 a plate, I don’t feel bad about $120 bottle of wine. No clearly, if I am told to get crazy, I can double this figure to $200-250 a bottle. Anything above level requires approval of the host by showing what you plan to order.
The other factor I take into account is the wine knowledge of the audience. If we have a bunch of novices around the table out for a good time, there is no need to go crazy. $50 a bottle is plenty. If I have a bunch of snooty wine aficionados, we might head more towards the crazy or crazy plus side of the wine list.
I have mentioned before that there are a few wines placed on wine lists that play the role of the “businessperson’s lifesaver”. In other words, they aren’t too expensive and represent decent quality and brands that people know. They’ll never get upset at ordering something like Silver Oak, Caymus or Jordan. If I don’t want one of these volume producers, I’ll use the price on the list as a guide to find something else. If the Silver Oak Alexander Valley is $125 a bottle, that is my target for the bottle I select.
When you are handed the list, the best option is to subtly ask your host the target price for a bottle. Without input from your host, shoot for (1) $100 a bottle, (2) 2-2.5 times the average entrée price or (3) the price of the Silver Oak Alexander Valley.
Ideally, when you ask how crazy the host wants to get, they respond with “I want to regret I ever handed you that list when I get the bill!” That’s time to ask for the reserve wine list.