If you’ve ever felt as if trying to decipher the wine list at a fancy restaurant were akin to attempting to read a phonebook in a foreign language, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s quite common for people to feel intimidated when presented with a weighty wine list that’s bound in leather and seemingly written in a code that only a certified sommelier could crack. But fear not: help in turning your dread into delight is just a few pointers—and a sommelier—away.
“Even I can get overwhelmed when I’m handed a hundred-page tome of a wine list, and I’m a professional,” says Bill Harris, wine director of the AAA Five Diamond Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, which offers more than 2,400 wine selections. “Most people go to dinner to relax, share time with family and friends, and enjoy great food and wine; they don’t want to spend an inordinate amount of time choosing wine.”
Selecting a bottle of wine for the table is a big responsibility, so tap the expertise of the sommelier, advises Harris. “Most upscale restaurants have well-trained sommeliers who are passionate about wine and taking care of guests. … A good sommelier will ask questions to get a sense of what you like to drink and will lead you to some great finds. As a guest, you shouldn’t have to work hard at this, as it’s the sommelier’s job to listen and interpret what you say into the perfect wine for you.”
The perfect wine also includes the perfect price for you, says Matt Koons, assistant director of Food & Beverage at Lautrec, a AAA Five Diamond restaurant at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Farmington, Pennsylvania, where guests can tour a 21,000-bottle wine cellar and enjoy wine tastings at the Académie du Vin. “[The service team] wants to earn your trust so that you will want to return and understand that many factors dictate price, including weather conditions that year, availability of the wine, vineyard practices, aging practices, barrel selection and so on,” he says.
“Also, be upfront with your budget. Almost all patrons will have a budget in mind for how much they are willing to spend. …Your sommelier or service team will get you the best wine possible for the money you are willing to spend,” he adds. “The role of the sommelier is to make sure the patron is drinking the right wine, not the most expensive wine.”
Along with saying a price range or discreetly pointing to a range on the list, decide what you’ll be eating so that the sommelier can pair your wine and food optimally. Typically, wine lists state prices as well as wine type; name; producer; region of origin; vintage date; and descriptions of weight, flavor and texture.
When the server presents the wine at the table, he or she will uncork the bottle and pour a sample. Etiquette entails swirling the wine in your glass to aerate it, sniffing it to absorb the aroma and taking a sip. If it’s good, nod yes. If it’s spoiled, send it back. Spoiled wine is often described as having a wet newspaper odor. You can also inspect the cork (but don’t sniff it) to ensure that any printing on it matches the bottle and that it’s wet and free of damage, signaling that the bottle was stored properly.
Of course, you can always order the house wine, but don’t be afraid to try new wines, says Koons. “Wine should be fun! … Let [your service professionals] introduce you to a world of wine you may have been unintentionally hiding from.”
Then the only thing you have left to do is toast your success!
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of AAA World.