It can be imposing to be handed the wine list at some restaurants and if no one is ordering a cocktail, which would give you some time to figure out what to order, you have to move quick. When you are pressed for time and really can’t study the list, you need some go-to strategies on how to order.
Here are a few low risk ordering strategies for you to try the next time you need to pull a rabbit out of a hat, or a bottle of wine off a list.
Your Server – While I am not normally a fan of asking the server for a wine recommendation due to the spotty levels of training unless you are in a top restaurant, this is an option. More often than not, they will pick something on special or a wine that they happen to sell a lot of. I can tell you from personal experience I always recommended Mouton-Cadet, a moderately priced volume Bordeaux as my go-to wine when I waited tables in college – and I knew nothing about wine. In a pinch though, it is likely to be a modestly priced inoffensive choice. Safe.
The Sommelier – If you are in a fancier place, they are likely to have a sommelier or perhaps a general manager that acts as the sommelier. This is a solid choice, although a little bit riskier if it is the general manager. They will know the list, know the food and be able to pick a solid bottle, particularly if you use one of the professional drinking techniques to communicate your price point.
Featured Wines – Some wine lists have a page of featured wines. The are usually labelled, “Our Favorites” or “Sommelier Choices”. These can be good low-risk selections as they have been vetted by the management and designed to match the menu. You’ll have to be aware of what people have ordered and not get a light white when people are going for heavily sauced proteins, or a massive red wine when the table is eating delicate white fish. If the table is large enough, getting a bottle of white and a bottle of red from the featured list is a solid approach.
Wines by the Glass – If there isn’t a featured bottle section, they will almost always have a wine by the glass section on the drink menu. These are the down the middle wines that they move in volume and they will always have a by the bottle price, which is where you are going. Some people turn their noses up at wines by the glass, but the reason they move is because they are well priced and tasty. It’s hard to go too far wrong here. It is unlikely that you’ll have a “wow” moment, but they are serviceable good choices that won’t get you in trouble.
Recommended Pairings – Many times, there will be a wine recommendation on the menu alongside the featured dishes. An example might be for the grilled Dover Sole, they would recommend a French Chablis or a Sonoma Chardonnay, both of these bottles on the wine list. While this can feel like cheating, it’s a known good combination. The chef and the sommelier got together to talk through the dish and pick a great wine to pair it. You can certainly go on your own, but if these experts are recommending something, it behooves you to pay attention. When you take this approach, you’ll need to be aware of what people are eating and select a white and a red that more or less matches the meals. The good news is that they limited your choices to a very small set of options and none of them too bad.
If you feel like you have the knowledge or the confidence, or both, to dive into the wine list and make selections, have at. For me, that’s part of the fun of going to a new restaurant. If you don’t, try one of these approaches.