"The goal is to aerate the wine a bit—not to slosh it around and show off."
No one likes to feel like a dope when staring down a wine list. So here's a cheat sheet on how to avoid embarrassment, culled from the collective wisdom of sommeliers and other wine professionals.
Before the Restaurant
1. If you're really worried about looking like an idiot, plan ahead. Most restaurants post their menus and wine lists online, and even if they don't, you can call the day before and ask for advice. If you're really concerned about screwing up, pre-order right then and there on the phone. Very few people know this is even an option.
2. It's OK to mention a price range. Really. You don't have to be a big shot and demand the priciest thing on the wine list. (This particular wisdom is courtesy of Derek Todd, owner of artisanal shop Wine Geeks in Armonk, New York, and former wine director at Blue Hills at Stone Barns—which has some pretty pricey bottles of vino). It's perfectly acceptable to say, "I'd like to spend $75 and I'd like a Cabernet." If you're shy, just point to a bottle on the menu and say you'd like something similar. The server will get the message.
3. Bring it all back to the food "Context is all," Evan Spingarn, the fabulously opinionated wine director at New York's Tangled Vine, warned me. "The $100 Cabernet that was life-affirming on Tuesday night at the steakhouse may be appallingly bad at the beach with clam rolls on Saturday. Therefore, ordering wine by price, scores, or familiar names is never as successful as selecting by what you plan to eat with it."
4. And be specific. "Never, EVER, walk into a wine store or restaurant and ask for '...a nice, dry red wine,'" Spingarn scolds. "It's the same as walking into a grocery store and saying: 'Excuse me, do you have any FOOD?'" In other words, it's too general, too open-ended. Be as specific as you can. The more info you can provide a sommelier or wine merchant, the better that person can help you find something great to drink.
Once the Wine Arrives
5. Don't sniff the cork It won't tell you much, and you'll look like a pretentious jerk. However, if you've ordered an older vintage, it's acceptable to pick up and look at the cork for possible signs of damage that might impact the wine's quality.
6. Swirl the wine a couple of seconds. Not longer. The goal is to aerate the wine a bit—not to slosh it around and show off. Didn't anyone tell you not to play with your food?
7. You can't send back a wine just because you don't like it. It's only OK to return wine if you're certain it's spoiled. (If you don't know how to tell, Wine.com has a good, straightforward guide to spotting wine that has gone bad.
8. Don't be afraid to order more than one wine. That can mean a couple of bottles for the table, or a couple of glasses for yourself. "Particularly in restaurants that have substantial by-the-glass programs," says Spingarn, "it's fun and cost-effective to order a glass of sparkling wine or white to start a meal, split a bottle of red (or whatever you prefer with the food) for your entree, and finish off with a little something sweet or fortified for dessert."
Do you agree/disagree with these tips? Have a tip of your own or a great resource to share? Please share your pearls of wisdom
About the author: Kara Newman has written about wine and spirits for such publications as Wine Enthusiast and Sommelier Journal magazines, and is the author of Spice & Ice, which explores 60 tongue-tingling cocktails.