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When you’re staring at a restaurant list, how can you tell what’s good? Two winemakers share the secret to ordering right every time.

Melanie Mannarino
June 05, 2018

I love wine, and have fun reading shelf cards at my local wine store to see if a particular wine has qualities and characteristics I usually like. I know my pinot noir from my pinot grigio, have never met a zinfandel I didn’t like (red, not white), and don't shy away from asking a salesperson for their advice if I need a bottle to go with a specific meal or occasion.

And yet—hand me a wine list at a restaurant and I freeze. I feel dumb. I feel like an imposter. Who am I to choose a wine based on a name and appellation alone? If I don’t recognize a wine I’ve already had (and liked) before, I quickly order the second-cheapest glass/bottle of whatever variety I’m in the mood for, mostly so that I don’t look like a total cheapskate. Surely, I think to myself as I sip my second-cheapest selection, there’s a better way to order off a wine list.

Turns out, there is. I spoke with two experts in the field: Giovanni Bonmartini-Fini, owner of Italy’s , and Anthony Riboli, owner of California’s . Both agreed: My “technique” when ordering off a wine list is not a formula for sipping success. Instead, they shared these insider strategies:

Trust the Restaurant

“A savvy wine buyer knows that if he offers a wine that customers will adore, they restaurant will sell more wine,” explains Bonmartini-Fini. Makes sense then, that you shouldn’t find a dud on the wine list. Even the least expensive bottle was chosen because the wine buyer believes you will like it.

Own Your Likes and Dislikes

Don’t be intimidated by wine snobs (at your table, or in the room). “Tell your server what you normally drink at home,” says Riboli. “If you like a sweet wine for example, be honest—mention a few you like and and ask for similar ones by the glass or by the bottle.”

Get a Second Opinion

If your server can’t recommend a wine you might like (because they’re 20 years old, because they drink straight scotch, because they’re loyal to their grandpa’s homemade wine…whatever) ask if they could send over a manager or sommelier. “No matter whose advice you seek, be honest and empowered,” says Riboli. “Don’t assume the sommelier is going to be a jerk if you tell them you drink white zin at home. They may recommend a moscato or a sweet riesling from Germany. Let them take you down a path and give you a few options.”

Ask for a Taste

“You should always be allowed to taste a small quantity of the wine before being served,” says Bonmartini-Fini. “Servers are usually happy to have you try several tastes of their by-the-glass selections.” Even if you’re planning to order a bottle, Riboli suggests asking if they serve it by the glass—that means they'll have a bottle open, so you can try a taste first. In fact, says Riboli, “A lot of time I will ask can I try this one and that one. I’ll taste it, my wife will taste it, and then we can agree on what bottle to order.”

But Do Ask When the Bottle Was Opened

“Ask before the glass is poured,” says Bonmartini-Fini. “Wine that has been opened for a long period looses flavor, especially whites. No way would I want a glass of wine that had been open two days or more.” Even if your server doesn’t know the answer, it will prompt them to make extra sure the glass you’re poured is fresh. And don’t feel guilty about making them open a new bottle, if needed. “It is always your right to reject a tired glass of wine lacking in flavor, spritz, or crispness,” he says. “Plus, when you order a $10 glass of wine, you can be fairly sure the restaurant paid that amount or less for the entire bottle.”

Drink What You Like

Don’t feel restricted by traditional rules of what foods go with what wines. “If you like cab with sushi, or a sauvignon blanc with your steak, go for it, that’s your choice,” says Riboli. That said, if he orders a steak and his dinner companion has ordered the fish, his first intinct would be to skip sharing a bottle and instead order individual glasses. If you do decide to split, says Riboli, “the most versatile variety for me is pinot noir. It works with meat, but could also work with chicken, pork, salmon, or other fish.”

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