How to Choose Wine from a Restaurant List like a Pro

On CTV’s The Social yesterday, we chatted about how to choose wine from a restaurant list, including how to indicate how much you want to pay without saying it out loud and sending back a bad bottle.

On Twitter, many folks asked which rosé I poured for Teddy. It’s the lovely Anew Rosé from Columbia Valley in Washington State. On Marci’s table is the Jackson-Triggs Cabernet.

Hope these tips help you through you next restaurant wine experience.

Ask for help

  • Find someone who should the wine list well, usually the sommelier, the bartender or your server.
  • Tell your sommelier a few details about the wines you like, or the last one you had you liked, and ask what he or she would suggest based on that.

Drink local wines

  • Focus on the area of the list that seems best-stocked, which is often wine that compliments the restaurant’s cuisine.
  • If you’re dining in a winemaking region (like Niagara), local wines are often a good bet.
  • They’re usually cheaper because there’s no import tax or shipping costs. You’re also more likely to find rare bottles you won’t find at home or in liquor stores.
  • The restaurateurs or sommeliers in these regions may also know the producers personally so they’d be familiar with the wines.

Does expensive mean better?

  • Not necessarily. Many diners mistrust an inexpensive wine, assuming it’s no good but that’s not always the case. Some wines are marked up more than others.

Subtly indicate your budget

  • Find a bottle on the menu that’s priced according to what you want to spend. It doesn’t have to be the wine you want, just the price you want.
  • Hold the menu toward the server and point to the price. Say something along the lines of, “I’d like to get a bottle in this range.”
  • That way, you’ve communicated to the server what you want tos pend without anyone at your table or adjacent tables knowing what you’ve indicated.

Ordering wine for different entrees

  • Try to find a wine that matches both meals.
  • Wines like Riesling and Pinot Noir can pair with a wide range of dishes because they are neither too full-bodied , nor too light.
  • You want to look for wines that are more balanced, as opposed to fruit-heavy or oaky.
  • If the restaurant offers the option, you can order half bottles or wines by the glass.

Is it a better value to order the half bottle or wine by the glass?

  • You almost always get a better deal with a bottle.
  • There are four glasses of wine in a bottle (the kind of glass people expect to be poured) so if everyone at the table knows they want at least one glass of wine and you can all agree on a wine, it’s best to order the bottle.
  • You’re getting a better deal with a bottle and you’re getting fresh wine.
  • If you order a half bottle or glass, you could be getting wine from a bottle that was opened yesterday.
  • The markup on a bottle of wine is usually 100 per cent so it’s double the retail price. House wines can be up to 300 per cent.

What to expect once wine is ordered

  • The bottle should be presented to you unopened.
  • The server should show the customer the bottle label forward so they can read it and make sure it’s what they had in mind when they ordered.
  • Once the bottle of wine is opened, the server will pour a small amount (usually an ounce) into the customer’s glass to taste.
  • Once the wine is approved, the sommelier will pour wine for each person at the table with the last person being the one who ordered and sampled the bottle.

Sending back a bad bottle

  • If you smell and sip the wine and it believe it may be off, ask the sommelier to try it.
  • Whether they agree or not, a well-trained server will take the bottle back anyway, without arguing.
  • If the sommelier thinks the wine is fine, they should never share their opinion.
  • Most people feel guilty about sending back a bottle because they believe the restaurant (or server) will suffer for it financially. But an establishment can usually return rejects to the wine merchant for full credit.
  • Restaurants take the cost of returned bottles into account when they price their wines, which means that any time you buy a bottle, you’re already paying for the privilege of being able to send it back.

What to do if you don’t like the wine

  • No one should have to drink wine he or she doesn’t like but the situation is delicate.
  • If the sommelier or waiter recommended the wine, there should be no problem sending it back.
  • If you, the diner, ordered the wine, it could be argued that you’re responsible for your choice and should pay for that bottle, even if you order a replacement.
  • However, others believe that if a wine is on the list then the restaurant implicit endorses it and should replace your bottle free of charge if you’re not satisfied.

Taking home the bottle

  • Depending on what province you live in it, you can take the unfinished bottle home. The establishment needs to push the cork all the way back into the bottle so that the customer can’t open it without a corkscrew.
  • Of course, if you’re driving, that bottle would have to be placed in the trunk or out of reach of the driver to abide by open liquor laws.

Bringing your own bottle to a restaurant

  • It’s completely legal in some provinces (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Alberta, and British Columbia) to bring your own wine, but even though the practice is legal you should check if the restaurant allows or encourages it.
  • Expect a corkage fee of $15-20 because they’re losing their entire margin on the alcohol.

Some etiquette tips:

  • It’s not about saving money off the bill; it’s about bringing a special wine for a special occasion.
  • Don’t bring a wine that’s already on the restaurant’s list.
  • Don’t go overboard—bring one bottle, not three or four bottles.
  • Unless the restaurant’s wine list is horrible, consider buying a glass to whet your appetite, if only as a goodwill gesture.
  • It’s also good form to offer a glass of your wine to the server. He or she can drink it, decline it or accept it to share with the chef.

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