“If you simply want a good meal, you don’t need to try to impress anyone in the restaurant with your wine order.”
By the Glass – yes and no
At a casual lunch or dinner, an upscale restaurant will often feature a few more interesting wines by the glass or by the flight. A flight is several small glasses of different wines, served at the same time or sequentially, and usually paired with specific dishes. This is your chance to sample without committing to a pricy full bottle. As these glass and flight specials tend to be small in number and to change monthly, the servers at the restaurant are often reliably coached on which wine to recommend with the dishes on their menu.
However, at very casual eating establishments, monthly wine specials are not always reliable in quality; these wines may have been chosen mainly to increase restaurant revenues.
The Wine Director – good and bad
At fine dining establishments, you might have a variety of experiences with your wine order. First, you could encounter a wine director (as sommeliers may now be called) who is genuinely interested in your having a great wine-and-food pairing. If so, enjoy the experience.
How do you tell if you’ve gotten a good wine person? Start by asking him or her what type of wine --not which wine -- to order with your chosen dish. This is her job, after all. Does the wine director seem smarmy or haughty? Try to put your own insecurities aside. If you are genuinely not having a paranoid day and you feel you are being treated this way, then forget the wine director; you are on your own -- almost.
The Right Bottle
I say “almost” because there are several reliable ways to choose wine on your own -- and you already have an idea of what type of wine you’ll want from the otherwise-useless sommelier. One is to experiment with the above-mentioned by-the-glass and flight specials. Stick to the classic “red with meat, white with chicken and fish” -- though a young pinot noir (aka red Burgundy) can also be lovely with salmon or pork.
Another method is to order a wine that is second from the bottom of the list, in any given category. Unless you are familiar with (and happen to like) the cheapest wine on the list, do not order it because it’s often put there for people who are literally bottom-line driven: they want the least expensive wine, for whatever reasons.
Also, do not order the most expensive wines on the list – again, unless you are familiar with and happen to like them. These are often targeted toward wine snobs and/or expense accounts. If you simply want a good meal, you don’t need to try to impress anyone in the restaurant with your wine order.
Stay out of the Wine Game
If your wine director is very young, he or she will often play “the wine game” with you (without announcing it). This is a one-upmanship deal: no matter how many wines you suggest, he will have something more obscure to trump it. It can be fun to try a wine from a tiny winery in the foothills of the most remote region. But it can also be deadly when she recommends something for its rarity value, rather than for its compatibility with your dinner. Feel free to send it back.
Becky Sue Epstein is an experienced lifestyle writer and editor, concentrating on wine and spirits. For the past twenty years she has provided food, wine and spirits coverage for local, regional, and national publications including Art & Antiques, Food &