Lesson 07 – Tips on ordering wines in a restaurant

Waiter, a bottle of your best Champagne, please!” That sort of lines doesn’t really happen in real life although sommeliers fantasize about it all the time.

What does happen frequently is a customer having a hard time selecting a wine he likes and receiving very little help from the wait staff of a restaurant. Everyone has had some memorable experiences and sadly a few bad ones that are difficult to forget. Most bad experiences had little to do with the wine itself although spoiled – corked – wines are not all that uncommon. In a restaurant, corked wine can be returned for a replacement bottle. A healthy bottle that you don’t particular fancy cannot be rejected.

Most disappointments are really caused by a combination of inadequate wine knowledge and sub-standard services. In this lesson we take a break from technical wine knowledge to discuss a few useful ideas that might help you to enjoy ordering wines in a restaurant.

Choosing the right restaurant

How do we know if a restaurant is well equipped in wine or not? Restaurant guides usually give us ratings on wine besides food and service. Or we can do a little investigation on our own. For example, when we call up for reservations, we could ask what kind of wine glasses they have. Names like Riedel, Spiegelau , Waterford and Ravenscroft offer much reassurance that the restaurant is pretty serious about wines.

For additional proof, it is totally appropriate to ask a restaurant to name a few older wines they offer. The presence of older vintage wines probably means the restaurant has an interesting wine cellar unlike many restaurants that simply picks up what is available in the wine shops around town and mark up the prices by 100% to sell it to their customers.

Helping the Restaurant to help you order the right wine

Don’t feel intimidated if you don’t recognize some wines on the wine list. It is a good thing. It means they have wines that you have not tasted before. But it also means you’ll need some advice from the server. Ironically, to get help, you first have to give help. Start by giving your waiter some clues about your personal tastes. For example, do you prefer a wine with full intensity or something lighter? Are you particularly thrown off by acidity – tartness – or do you hate astringency and bitterness? Are you happier with higher alcohol or something less “hot”? Continue to give him examples of wines you drank before that you really like. Ordering the right wine is a result of team work between customers and servers. These clues really help the restaurant recommend a style of wine compatible to your palate. At the end of the day, both sides win.

Learn your vintages

Vintage variations – quality differences between same wines from different years – make ordering wine trickier than food and other beverages. If you find a good restaurant that offers a great wine list with more matured wines from say 15 to 30 years of age, you would need to know your vintages. Don’t be surprised to find the price of the same wine doubles between from one year to another. That’s perfectly normal. There are pocket vintage charts that you can purchase for a few hundred pesos. Bring them with you when you shop for wine especially when you travel abroad where the selection is so much bigger and more exciting.

Ordering wine in restaurants is a vastly different experience from shopping in a wine store. Restaurants begin where shops leave off. Shops sell either cheap wines for immediate quaffing or fine wines for you to lay them down for 5 or more years before drinking at their peaks. Next time you visit a venerable wine restaurant, order older wines, the kind that you don’t get in shops. The restaurant price markup is a fair reward for their patience, care and financial burden for nursing these bottles for so many years just so you can enjoy them at their primes. Price markups for young wines are more difficult to swallow since the restaurant did little to increase its value for you.

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