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.