Ordering wine in a restaurant can be an intimidating and potentially embarrassing situation, akin to the fear of being chosen last for a pickup baseball game or not being asked to dance at the senior prom (or being asked to dance, depending on how many left feet you have).
The waiter, or worse, sommelier, comes by and hands you a leather-wrapped book which is just a few pages longer than War and Peace. After fingering through a few pages with your eyebrows turned up, you glumly reply “We’ll have the house wine.”
First of all, don’t EVER order the “house” wine; unless you’re eating in a European village (where the house wine might be fun to try) or in Little Italy (where you’ll be shot if you don’t). The United States definition of “house wine” is “the cheapest wine we could get our hands on this week to sell off for a major profit to people who don’t know any better.”
If you don’t have any idea what bottle to choose from the list, check for “wines by the glass”. Most decent restaurants have at least a red and white wine by the glass, and the better establishments have a few choices. This is a great way to experiment and discover which wines you enjoy with which foods.
Once you feel confident enough to order from the list, be prepared for The Presentation. This is the procedure that all restaurants practice, and begins of course with the handing over of the wine list. If the list is not given to your party automatically, clear your throat boldly and ask for it. (Some restaurants also have a “reserve” list, which is a special list offered to their best customers, and often includes old bottles from the owner’s personal cellar. Unless you really know your wine, you’re with a group of serious geeks, AND you have a LOT of money to spend, I suggest you avoid this list.)
As you peruse the list, take note of the organization. Wine lists are usually arranged either by type of wine (chardonnay, merlot, pinot grigio, etc.) or by region (California, Burgundy, Piedmont). Almost always, each section is listed from least expensive to most expensive (beware of lists without prices!). The better restaurants list the variety of the wine (ex. “pinot grigio”), the brand of wine (ex. “Santa Margherita”), the area it comes from (“Italy” or more specifically, “Trentino”), and the vintage (ex. “1998”). Although I don’t personally believe that the vintage is such a huge deal (the producer is almost always a more important detail), if the vintages are not listed I would be wary—this is an indication that the wine list is not updated often and/or they often buy “off” vintages that have been sitting in someone’s warehouse too long.
Once you have decided on a wine, tell the waiter/sommelier of your selection. In a few minutes he/she will return with a bottle and show it to you. This is your chance to check the label to ensure it is the correct wine and vintage that you ordered (assuming you can still remember after drinking all those martinis). If it’s correct (or you can’t remember), simply nod or say, “yes.” I would say you’ll get the wrong bottle about 10% of the time. Then the server will open the bottle and place the cork on the table in front of you. DON’T sniff it! There’s nothing at all you can learn about the wine by snorting the cork, and besides you look like an idiot doing it. The cork is presented for two reasons; first, the printing on the cork should match the bottle. Not all wines have their name (and/or vintage) listed on the cork, but the most expensive wines will. This is a time-honored tradition that guards against people switching labels on wines. (Sure, the pump says “super unleaded” but how do you know the tank’s not really filled with regular?) The chance of this happening is almost zero in your lifetime, but old traditions die hard. The second and more useful reason to inspect the cork is to see that it’s wet. This indicates that the bottle was properly stored on its side (or the waiter shook up the bottle on his way over to your table). If the cork is dry, it could be a signal that the wine may be flawed. Not to worry, you still have one more chance to test the wine before accepting it.
After you have looked at the cork for a moment, the server will now pour about an ounce or two of wine into your glass and step back from you. No, he’s not being a wise guy—he’s giving you a chance to test the wine. Swirl the wine around the glass a few times, then stick your nose all the way into the glass and take a big whiff. Yes, you will feel silly at first, but you’ll look cool doing it. If you smell fruit, flowers, and other nice aromas, then simply nod to the server and he/she will begin serving wine to the rest of the table (don’t worry, your glass will be completely filled after everyone else). However, if the wine has an unpleasant odor, and you can’t identify any fruit aromas, it may be corked, and you’ll have to send the bottle back. Corked wine will smell dank and musty, very similar to the odor of wet books (have you ever been in a basement just after a flood’s been pumped out? THAT’s the smell). If you’re not sure, don’t be afraid to ask the sommelier to smell the wine. First of all, he likes to be called on as an authority, secondly, he’s looking for a good tip, and third, you’re spending good money on that bottle.
So that’s it! Once the wine is poured, The Presentation is done—you survived. After you go through this routine a few more times, it’ll seem like old hat, and you can concentrate your anxiety on choosing the right wine for your meal.