The do’s and don’ts of or­der­ing wine

Tips from som­me­liers and wine di­rec­tors

The Hamilton Spectator - - FOOD - HOL­LEY SIM­MONS

I was hav­ing din­ner at the bar of a high-end Ital­ian restau­rant in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., when the bar­tender handed me a hefty wine list.

Feel­ing over­whelmed, I asked him to choose some­thing for me. “I like bold reds,” I told him. “Pour me two glasses of wine at $25 apiece with­out in­form­ing me of the ex­or­bi­tant price,” is what he must have heard.

Not all servers are out to “up­sell,” of course, but my costly blun­der could have been avoided had I not been afraid to en­gage in a deeper con­ver­sa­tion about my wine pref­er­ences.

Som­me­liers say that not ask­ing the right — or any — ques­tions is of­ten the big­gest mis­take din­ers make when or­der­ing wine.

“Choos­ing a wine is not a mul­ti­ple-choice exam with right and wrong an­swers,” says Bianca Bosker, a cer­ti­fied som­me­lier and the au­thor of “Cork Dork,” a book about her in­ten­sive 18-month im­mer­sion in the world of wine.

“Peo­ple are em­bar­rassed to ask ques­tions about wine be­cause they feel like they should know more about it than they do.”

De­ter­mined not to make a sim­i­lar mis­take again, I sought the ad­vice of pros on the dos and don’ts of or­der­ing wine:

Don’t: Be shy about your bud­get

“A price range is al­ways one of the most help­ful things to know as a som­me­lier, be­cause it nar­rows down the op­tions,” says Eric DiNardo, som­me­lier and bev­er­age di­rec­tor for Schlow Restau­rant Group.

If you’re em­bar­rassed to ad­mit your price range in front of your com­pan­ions, Bosker rec­om­mends point­ing to a bot­tle on the menu: “A good som­me­lier will pick up on your hint and won’t sug­gest a $150 bot­tle if you’re in­di­cat­ing some­thing that’s $50.”

For those on a bud­get, Justin Lo­gan, coowner of Ruta Del Vino in D.C., also rec­om­mends warm­ing up your palate with a pricier va­ri­etal and switch­ing to some­thing less ex­pen­sive later.

“They even did that in the Bi­ble,” he says of the Wed­ding at Cana.

Do: Spring for a bot­tle

If you and a din­ing com­pan­ion are on the same page in terms of flavour, it makes eco­nomic sense to or­der a bot­tle.

“Wines by the bot­tle are al­ways the bet­ter price,” says Lo­gan, adding that the price of four glasses of wine of­ten equals the cost of a bot­tle, which yields five glasses.

Wor­ried about not be­ing able to drink it all? In some places, you can take home any wine you haven’t fin­ished as long as it’s in a con­tainer that can’t be re­sealed.

Do: Ask for sam­ple be­fore com­mit­ting to glass

Most restau­rants are happy to oblige when you ask to sam­ple a wine be­fore com­mit­ting to a glass. If it’s not to your taste, you should feel no pres­sure to or­der it.

On the other hand, if you’ve or­dered a full bot­tle, your op­tions are more limited.

“When you’re given a taste af­ter or­der­ing a bot­tle of wine, you are not test­ing if you like it, you’re see­ing if it’s fun­da­men­tally flawed,” Bosker says.

A bad or “corked” bot­tle will have hints of musti­ness or wet rag, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal wine con­sul­tant Tom Madrecki.

To be safe, talk to your server about how the wine you have in mind tastes be­fore or­der­ing a bot­tle. For a deeper con­ver­sa­tion, you could ask whether the restau­rant has a som­me­lier.

You’ll have lit­tle re­course once the bot­tle has been popped. But don’t be afraid to send back a bot­tle of wine if you re­ally don’t like it. Good restau­rants want you to have a pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence, and they might be will­ing to take it off the cheque and per­haps of­fer it by the glass to an­other ta­ble.

Don’t: Fall for the ‘gimme’ wines

Most restau­rants have what som­me­liers re­fer to as “gimme” wines, Bosker says, or wines that are so fa­mil­iar and pop­u­lar that din­ers or­der them on au­topi­lot — think New Zealand sau­vi­gnon blanc or a Cal­i­for­nia Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon.

“If you or­der a gimme wine, you’re go­ing to pay a gimme tax,” Bosker says. “They’re not a great value be­cause restau­rants know they will sell eas­ily. In­stead go with the wine from the grape you’ve never heard of from the re­gion you can’t pro­nounce.

“It might not be the cheap­est of your op­tions, but it will be a bet­ter value.”

Do: Take note of what’s miss­ing from the wine list

You can count on most restau­rants to of­fer the usual sus­pects, such as the afore­men­tioned “gimmes.” If the stan­dards are nowhere to be found, there’s prob­a­bly a rea­son.

“Some places have a point of view with their wine list,” Bosker says. “They’re leav­ing off some of th­ese more ob­vi­ous wines be­cause they pride them­selves on do­ing things dif­fer­ently.”

And if some­thing isn’t on the list, don’t ask for it.

If you’d pre­fer to stick to what you know, tell your server what you nor­mally drink, and they can rec­om­mend some­thing in that ball­park.

Don’t: Balk at prices

Of­ten, the price you pay for a glass of wine is about the same as what the restau­rant paid for the whole bot­tle.

“A lot of peo­ple are like, ‘This is such a big markup, I could buy this at a wine shop for less,’” Bosker says. “But keep in mind you’re not just pay­ing for the 750 millil­itres of fer­mented grape juice in the bot­tle. You’re pay­ing for the staff wages, for the in­sur­ance, the cost of laun­der­ing your nap­kin, the en­tire ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Al­co­hol sales are what help keep restau­rants in busi­ness, and by bel­ly­ing up to the ta­ble, cus­tomers con­sent to a higher price than they’d find at a wine store.

“Liq­uids keep restau­rants liq­uid,” Bosker says. “You’re help­ing the restau­rant sur­vive.”

Do: Tip ap­pro­pri­ately and be pa­tient

When or­der­ing wine at the bar, the $1 per-drink tip sug­ges­tion doesn’t al­ways ap­ply.

“Tip­ping de­pends on what kind of es­tab­lish­ment you’re at,” says Kate Chris­man, the wine di­rec­tor and as­sis­tant man­ager at Vinoteca in Wash­ing­ton. “If you’re sit­ting and eat­ing and hav­ing a meal, I would say use the 20 per cent struc­ture” that uses the to­tal bill as its ba­sis.

When or­der­ing wine for the ta­ble, ex­er­cise pa­tience. Al­though it’s not be­ing mixed from scratch like a cock­tail, it still takes time to pre­pare.

“Wine ser­vice on the floor is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than at the bar. Some peo­ple will or­der a bot­tle and ex­pect it right away” says Na­dine Brown, wine di­rec­tor for Charlie Palmer Steak on Capi­tol Hill.

But there are still lo­gis­tics in­volved, she says, in­clud­ing ring­ing in the or­der, re­triev­ing the wine, dou­ble-check­ing the vin­tage and tem­per­a­ture, and pro­cess­ing other din­ers’ or­ders.

“Stor­age is also of­ten a huge prob­lem in restau­rants,” Brown says. “I used to work in a restau­rant that kept the reds in one lo­ca­tion, the whites in an­other and the cham­pagnes down­stairs in the base­ment.”

Don’t: Wear strong per­fume if drink­ing wine

A wine’s aroma is tied closely to its taste, which is part of the rea­son wine pros will swirl their glass and take a big sniff be­fore tak­ing a sip. That’s why it’s best to sam­ple wine in unadul­ter­ated air.

“Don’t over­per­fume your­self,” says Hugo Lefevre, man­ager of Eno Wine Bar in Georgetown. “The scent of the per­fume or cologne will de­tract from the aro­mas of the wine and af­fect your taste­buds.”

Do: Down­load th­ese cool wine apps

In­tro­verts and an­ti­so­cials re­joice: there are sev­eral apps that can help you choose a wine if you’d pre­fer to keep to your­self.

Stacey Khoury-Diaz, who plans to open Dio wine bar in D.C. this year, rec­om­mends Wine Ring, which makes rec­om­men­da­tions based on pre­vi­ous bot­tles you’ve liked.

Vivino, which lists rat­ings and sug­gested retail prices for wines, is also worth a down­load, es­pe­cially if you want to make sure you’re get­ting a good deal.

But don’t hag­gle if you see a big price dis­crep­ancy — prices at restau­rants are fixed. So only use th­ese apps as a start­ing point.


Som­me­liers say that not ask­ing the right — or any — ques­tions is of­ten the big­gest mis­take din­ers make when or­der­ing wine. And be clear about how much you want to spend.

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