Ordering wine has become one of the most fraught moments in the entire spectrum of this thing we call “going out to eat.” No one is ever prepared and unknowns start popping up, each one their own quavering tuning fork of anxiety. What color? How much? Will this go with my food? Will my date like it? Am I getting ripped off? Am I going to look like some kind of wine idiot?!?

Fortunately, there a few simple ways to avoid the furtive glances and silent awkwardness that a wine list brings to the table. Ordering wine should be fun! It should be an opportunity for deliciousness, conviviality and eventual tipsiness. Here’s how to make that happen – no research or Googling required.

By: Nick Williams  

Look around you…

Your surroundings can help narrow your choices when it comes to wine, especially when the cuisine happens to come from a wine producing country. Neighborhood Italian joint? Maybe it’s just me, but I’d go with something Italian. Cozy French bistro? I hear the French do wine very well. Croatian farm-to-table molecular tapas? You get the idea.

If you don’t have a convenient ethnicity/nationality to work with, think about the general vibe. A noisy neighborhood hole-in-the-wall with fogged up windows and a rowdy clientele will take nicely to a Beaujolais, Cava and Prosecco, and simple Italian whites, while the fancy burger place probably has some fabulous Cotes du Rhone on the menu.

On the other hand, some rarefied Temple Of Gastronomy where you can hear people’s forks hitting their plates and the waiters speak in reverent whispers of what “chef” has created tonight – picking a wine in that situation is going to require a bit more thought. We’ll get to that in a second, but for now…

What’s on the menu?

Pairing wine with food is it’s own vast and ever-expanding universe of possibility, and the perfect combination can help elevate a simple meal into something sublime. No matter what you have probably heard, however, there aren’t really any hard and fast rules to this game. You’re not going to accidentally hit upon some profoundly gross food/wine combo, but there are a few simple guidelines that should help you take your meal to the next level.

Light fare – salads, seafood, etc. – tend to go great with crisp whites like Muscadet, Sauvignon Blanc, Verdicchio, or Chenin Blanc.

Heavy, hearty dishes – especially those with a red meat component – want big, brawny reds like Priorat, Bordeaux, Ribera del Duero, or anything from California.

In-between foods like in-between wines. Fried chicken? Try a Bourgogne Blanc or even an oaky Chardonnay. BBQ? Pinot Noir is perfect. Sushi? Drink a beer, seriously.

Here’s a pro tip. If the evening’s cuisine is spicy Asian food – Sichuan, Northern Thai, Cantonese, Indian, Malaysian – order off-dry Riesling. That hint of sweetness in the wine and the fiery heat of the food is a marriage for the ages and will perform an elegant first dance all over your tongue. That is a lovely image if I do say so myself.

But but but! What do you do if you’re out with six people and everybody is ordering wildly different dishes? Friends, the simple answer to this conundrum – and indeed many of life’s problems – is rose! Pink wine is renowned for its versatility, and its lively acidity is a natural appetite stimulant second only to weed. Speaking of weed, you should definitely try drinking ice cold rose while high – there is nothing better.

Ok, let’s talk about money…There is a pithy old adage that goes something like “always order the second cheapest bottle on the menu.” This is amateur thinking for cheap, grumpy dads who would rather be drinking Corona. The truth is, most restaurants in New York City – especially the fun, casual ones – have significantly upped their wine game in recent years.

So, if you’re watching your budget, go ahead and order the cheapest bottle! It’s unlikely to be gross, and it will definitely have alcohol in it unless you have fallen victim to some kind of 1920’s temperance scam in which case damn, where are you?

If you’ve got a bit more wallet flexibility, just take another look at what kind of digs you find yourself in. Remember that noisy little hole-in-the-wall from a few paragraphs ago? You’ll probably find something delicious for under $50, but definitely, don’t spend more than $75. Save those hundos for a special occasion.

Shouldn’t I just ask my server for a rec?

The answer is…maybe. If you find yourself at a restaurant you know and love, and you trust the staff to steer you right, by all means, get a professional opinion. Some places are great at educating and tasting their staff on the wine list, and you’ll subsequently get good results, especially if you are regular and they know your tastes.

Much of the time, however, your server is only going to be familiar with a few individual bottles, not really enough to offer consistent wine advice. Also, they might have been trained to use some wine buzzwords or make comparisons that can confuse things even more, especially if they haven’t actually tasted through the list. This is not to rag on servers, who work extremely hard and process vast amounts of complex information while being friendly as hell. But when it comes to wine, your guess is often as good as theirs.

Rather than ask your server to recommend a pairing or make them try to guess what you would like to drink, ask them if they have a favorite wine on the list. If their eyes light up and they start to rhapsodize about a certain item, then it’s probably going to be mighty tasty, no matter what food is coming out of the kitchen.

There is, however, a situation in which you absolutely should ask the staff for a recommendation, and that is when you take a look around and say to yourself…

Fuck, this place is fancy…

It’s getting easier to find good wines in casual restaurants where the list is often small and well-curated. But when you find yourself at one of the aforementioned Food Valhalla’s and you are about drop some serious scratch, the situation becomes a bit more complicated.

The wine list at your average Michelin Star Coat-and-Tie place is usually mind-bendingly vast and nearly impossible to dig through, even for (alleged) professionals like myself. Also, these lavish wine lists contain a surprising amount of straight-up bullshit wines that are in no way worth the hundred-plus dollars you are about to spend on them.

Fortunately, these places usually come with a sommelier or another member of staff whose sole job it is to know every single detail about every single wine on the list. Usually, they will ask a few questions about your food choices and your budget and then make a clear and concise recommendation. Go with it – you’ll probably be more than happy, and if not, well, you should never go to that restaurant again. It should be the goal of every sommelier to provide even the most rookie wine drinker with a transcendent experience, not to unload some $300 farce on unsuspecting diners.

Ok! I’m ready for some wine…

And that brings us to the most important thing, the true secret to stress-free wine ordering. You just have to love wine. Fire off an order and be excited! Be adventurous! Order something from a country you have always wanted to visit. Order a grape you’ve never heard of. Order the one with the most unpronounceable name. Order the least expensive bottle. Fuck it, order the most expensive bottle!

An unfamiliar wine list is like a book of spells, each selection an incantation that can lead to something beautiful. You will inevitably make mistakes and conjure up some vinous abominations, but eventually, you’ll master this strange magic and wind up with a lovely drop without any thought at all. And you’ll get pretty drunk along the way.

Nick Williams

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When the mercury squeaks past 90 and summer drinking times are in full swing, nobody really reaches for red wine. While Rosé is fruity, bright and Instagrammable, red tends to get left out of the conversation.

This is a shame!

Many of our most summery foods – smoky meat, burgers off the grill, glittering piles of fresh tomatoes – go best with red wine! These are the tastes of summer, and the right red wine goes with summer just as well as beach trips, cookouts, and taking off most of your clothes.

It’s true that certain reds are less than ideal for hot days, especially wines that are super boozy, oaky or full-bodied. But medium or light-bodied reds with moderate alcohol and zippy acidity are great for all weather, especially when eating is involved. Plus, you can (and should) serve them chilled! (Not ice-cold…say, half an hour in the fridge.)

If you’re hunting for summertime reds, look to the wines of Croatia.

Map by Wine Folly

Croatia has an ancient and venerable winemaking tradition – Zinfandel is actually of Croatian origin – but for hot weather reds, I would look for wines made from the indigenous red varietals Babić and Plavac Mali.

Babić (bah-beach) is the more easygoing of the two, medium-bodied and familiar. Wines made from Babić often have plummy and figgy flavors, but the fruitiness is cut with herb and spice and shot through with a distinctive smokiness.

Plavac Mali (plah-vahts mah-lee) is more savory, cranking up the smoke and the herbal flavors into wines that are pleasantly rustic but full of power and finesse.

What makes these varietals come to glorious life on hot summer days is their ability to play extremely nicely with grilled delights.

Babić, fruity and light, will go best with afternoon burgers, sausages, hot dogs (yes), and absolutely shine with balsamic-dressed tomatoes. Save the Plavac Mali for post-sunset, when you’re hauling perfect steaks and elegantly singed veggies off the coals. It’s bigger, darker, richer, and earthier, more suited to the char and smoke.

These wines are still relatively rare enough that they are the objects of intense passion from wine professionals, so you’re likely to find good examples just by asking around. But if you happen to pick up wines from producers like Piližota, Lanterna, Zlatan Otok, or Kobal, well…I approve. Imagine a vague image of me shimmering in your peripheral vision, like a benevolent Jedi wine-ghost, nodding and smiling while you make your purchase.

You should be able to find wines from the Nick-approved producers for $15-$22. Look for these and other fine Croatian reds at Astor Wines & Spirits, Flatiron Wines, and Crush Wines & Spirits in Manhattan, or Thirst Merchants and Slope Cellars in Brooklyn.

Nick Williams

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It’s not hard to throw the best Friendsgiving ever, although it’s certainly a different vibe than your average rager. I like to gather a few friends to start cooking around noon, and I delegate sides and desserts to the late-arriving guests. I enforce a strict dress code of hideous holiday sweaters, for maximum coziness

New York City is filled with Thanksgiving orphans, hence the growing popularity of Friendsgiving. It’s just like regular Thanksgivingthe same carb-fueled exercise in togetherness, except in this case we use piles of food and gallons of alcohol to embrace our fellow party people rather than to avoid our weird uncles who are super into Fox News.

For food, stick to the classics – turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, Parker House rolls, pumpkin pie, etc. We only get to eat this food once a year so there’s no reason get all crazy with racks of lamb and sous vide goose and Ras El-Hanout etc.

Cook Thanksgiving food and give the people what they want!

The other thing you should do is drink wine all day, and for that, you will need the right wine. Something light and fruity, low in alcohol and bright with acidity. Something to lead you and your guests from the first flash of a knife through onion, to a post-prandial state of metabolic bliss, i.e. sprawled on the floor in a food/wine coma.

Friends, such a wine exists, and my extensive experience as a Friendsgiving drinker and cook has led me to the conclusion that there is literally no better thing to sip a late-November day away. Here, take my hand, and let me whisper to you of Beaujolais Nouveau.

Beaujolais Nouveau is the most famous and celebrated Vin de Primeur, a term referring to any French wine meant to be bottled and sold during the same year in which the grapes are harvested. Winemakers in Beaujolais bottled Vin de Primeur for local consumption for centuries, but in the 1940s decided to release it to Parisian markets for a much-needed post-WWII economic bump. Due to a confluence of publicity stunts, savvy marketing, and the general tastiness of the wine, it caught on in the bistros of the French capital, and then the rest of the world. 

Starting in 1951, the wine has been released on the third Thursday of November, which became internationally known as Beaujolais Nouveau Day and just so happens to correspond nicely with the Thanksgiving shopping plans of Americans.

This is quite a happy coincidence because Beaujolais Nouveau just so happens to be the fucking perfect Thanksgiving Wine.

Or Friendsgiving Wine, as the case may be. Made from the Gamay grape, the wine is bottled mere months after the grapes come down off the vine. This extremely short fermentation and aging period keep the wine fresh and bright, and the natural qualities of Gamay ensure a tangy and refreshing drop

In France, these wines usually accompany the fat-laden comfort food served in cafes and corner bistros, so it’s a natural leap to the creaking holiday tables of Americans. In fact, go ahead and skip the cranberry sauce this year – the red fruit flavors and blazing acidity of Beaujolais Nouveau are the perfect stand-ins. The soft fruitiness will draw out the natural sweetness of yams, lift and enhance the earthiness of green beans, and cut through the salt and cream and butter and gravy and, oh man am I hungry.

These wines meld with dark meat turkey in ways that are almost sexual, a straight-up Thanksgasm.

My first experience with this beguiling wine came from a friend’s parents annual Beaujolais Nouveau Party, now a fading tradition meant to celebrate the release of the latest vintage. Naturally, we procured a few bottles, and I now happily associate its fruity flavor with listening to Massive Attack in my friend’s black-lit bedroom. 

In retrospect, those wines were…not great. Shot through with the uncanny essence of banana, they were a mass-produced version of what is supposed to be a relatively rustic and untouched product. Still, they were fun, mellow, and (important to my 17-year old self) extremely easy-drinking, and I look back on those parties through the golden-hued lens of holiday nostalgia and teenage wine-buzz.

Years later, I was lucky enough to taste a real Beaujolais Nouveau, one made from the decades-old Gamay vines of Domaine des Terres Dorees, under the watchful eye of Beaujolais legend Jean-Paul Brun. I consider this the gold standard of the style – vibrant, vivacious, high-toned, and flamboyantly fruity, but here and there peppered with exotic spice and clear-cut mineral. 

If you can find the 2018 Jean-Paul Brun Nouveau (and you should be able to, its brought into the states by a New York-based importer), by all means, make it your Friendsgiving tipple. Pierre Chermette and Domaine Rochette are other great producers, and at about $14 per bottle, are comparably priced with the Jean-Paul Brun. Avoid the big producers like Georges DuBoeuf, unless you want the aforementioned Banana Bomb, and for the love of God buy from a trusted source. Try to lay in at least one bottle per Friendsgiving guest, and serve it slightly chilled, as the French do.

And please have a happy and safe Friendsgiving.

I hope it’s heart-warming as hell.

Nick Williams

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