Most of us have had that moment, sitting in a restaurant faced with a daunting wine list and no idea what to order. Sure, you might know your pinot grigios from your malbecs, but what about beyond that? Choosing which particular brand or vintage to go with your meal is beyond most people, and plenty of us will just opt for whichever option is cheapest.
However, according to a top sommelier, it doesn’t need to be such a baffling task. Whether you’re at a high-end, white tablecloth restaurant, or just your local chain, you can still make the most of your wine choice, and keep yourself open to new discoveries in the process.
To learn how to make wine knowledge more accessible, we enlisted the help of sommelier Victoria James, a partner and beverage director of New York City restaurant Cote and the author of Wine Girl, who shared with us her advice for ordering and purchasing wine even when you have no idea what you’re talking about.
Trust the sommelier and be open to suggestions
According to James, who became the youngestcertified sommelier in the country when she was just 21, and who will be a featured guest during the upcoming three-day Women & Worth Virtual Summit beginning on 2 March, one of the most important things to do when choosing wine while dining out is trusting the sommelier.
“Don’t be scared of the sommelier, they are there to help,” she told us. However, that doesn’t mean letting the sommelier recommend a bottle of wine blindly, as James explained that it can be helpful to share examples of wines that you have recently enjoyed, after noting your price point.
“Let them know your price point and perhaps some bottles you had recently that you enjoyed (you can even show them pictures on your phone if you forget the exact producers),” she encouraged. “Most importantly, be open to the sommelier’s suggestions.”
According to James, being open to suggestions means that you can avoid potential pitfalls such as ordering a malbec only to find it pairs poorly with your first course of oysters, an “absolutely terrible pairing” that she explained has to do with the tannins found in red wine that, when mixed with fish oils, will cause you to experience a metallic taste.
Whether you know a significant amount about wine or are just looking for a good bottle to enjoy with your dinner, trusting the sommelier is your best bet when you’re ordering a bottle of wine.
If the restaurant doesn’t have a sommelier, you can still ask for help ordering
If you’re enjoying an outing of fine dining, chances are the restaurant will have a sommelier on staff. However, if you are eating somewhere more low-key, that doesn’t mean help with the wine list isn’t available, according to James, who told us that diners should feel comfortable asking “who put the wine list together” and whether that staff member is available to assist you.
“If the wine program is good they’ll invest in team members to help lead sales and make guests happy,” she explained, adding that if a restaurant does not have someone who can advise, she’ll typically order a campari and soda instead.
In a restaurant, higher price doesn’t necessarily mean better
One of the best parts of drinking wine is the wide range in prices, with a good bottle available in nearly every price point.
But that doesn’t mean that the higher the price the better the wine, as pricier bottles can be just as good as a $20 bottle of wine.
“Higher price doesn’t necessarily mean a better wine, just like a pricier handbag doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better quality,” James said.
Rather, she told us that with more expensive bottles, it is often the case that you are paying for the rarity of the wine, or how many bottles exist in the world, because “after all, wine can only be made once a year and the results are at the mercy of Mother Nature, so there are many variables that can lead to the final quantities”.
Brand also comes into play when it comes to price, with James explaining that the cost of producing a bottle of wine is only so much - and then marketing dollars can push up the price.
However, according to James, when it comes to ordering wine in a restaurant, she would recommend staying near the $20 price point and above, as “you might not be getting the highest quality wine” if you are paying less than that.
“If you want to drink cheaply, choose something that can be made in limitless quantities such as beer,” she added.
Be wary of wine that is served too cold
One of most widely spread myths when it comes to wine is that red wine should be kept at room temperature, while white wine should be served cold.
While it is true that white wines should be chilled, they should not be kept at a near-freezing temperature as it ends up muting all the flavours, a point that James said restaurants takes advantage of.
“Ahem, why cheap and sh***y wine is always served ice cold at restaurants,” she said.
Red wine should also be chilled
Surprisingly, red wine also belongs in the fridge, according to James, who told us that with a wine that is too warm “the alcohol, acidity and tannins will be way out of balance and it’ll taste very harsh”.
To protect the flavour of red wines, James said they should be kept at cellar temperature of 55 degrees.
The same is true for your personal collection, with James assuring us that a regular fridge is fine if you don’t have a wine fridge, but that the wine should be removed an hour before drinking.