Restaurant wine lists can be tricky. When out with friends or family, I often find myself being delegated the task of ordering the wine simply because no one wants the pressure of choosing the right bottle. I suppose no food-loving city-dweller wants to be culpable for putting a glass of bad juice in front of a nice plate of food, regardless of whether it’s a casual night out with friends or a business dinner with clients. For this reason, I have circled back to my past life of writing wine lists to compile some tips and tricks for ordering lovely wines that offer great value in restaurants.
Don’t worry too much about pairing. Truthfully, if you find a wine you like and pair it with a dish you like, you’re probably going to have a good experience. In general, you’ll find success if you simply match the weight/richness of your food to the weight/richness of the wine.
Buy a bottle instead of a glass. Restaurants tend to make the most margin in the “by the glass” category so whenever possible, order a bottle instead. Remember that there are about 4.5 glasses per bottle so if you are with a few people you are likely to go through that amount anyway.
Read the entire list, or start back to front. Often patrons read the first few pages of a wine list and get bored so they default to the first wines they recognize. Furthermore, sommeliers tend to hide little gems in the back pages!
Ask the sommelier for recommendations or what he/she likes to drink. Somms tend to be super-passionate people so if you ask them for a personal recommendation, you’ll often get all the insider info you need. Also ask for a list of bin-ends or wines off the list (every Sommelier has a stash).
Avoid popular appellations, you’ll find better value and can discover some gems if you choose a less-recognizable origin. Test this strategy with wines from Southern Italy or Southern France.
Don’t be afraid to go out of season, there are often bin ends or specials for wines that are out of their peak drinking season. For example, rosé seems to be bound to the hot weather zeitgeist; however, in the autumn I think these wines are even more enjoyable as they have more savoury character. Restaurants tend to panic with leftover rosé at the end of the summer, so this is a great opportunity to drink it for pennies.
Don’t choose obvious wines if you’re looking for value. This means any big brands or wines from regions that pair with the restaurant concept (i.e. Burgundian wines in a French Restaurant). It sounds counterintuitive but steering towards the less obvious choices almost always guarantees added value.
Good restaurants have good house wine and take pride in their selection, even at the entry level. If you are somewhere reputable, don’t be afraid to try the house wine or an unknown brand that is listed for an inexpensive price.
Ask about quantity before you order. This is always a good idea if you are at a business dinner or with a group. If you spend the time choosing the perfect bottle, it is helpful to know if the restaurant is down to their last bottle in advance.
Bring your own bottle (BYOB). Many restaurants offer the option to bring your own bottle for a corkage fee. If you want to drink nice wine without paying the mark-up, this is a wonderful option.