10 Tips For Navigating The Wine List At A Steakhouse

If you're a meat lover, there's nothing better than a nice, thick steak, cooked medium-rare and served up with a side of mashed potatoes and maybe a succulent sauce drizzled on top. Unless it comes with a bottle of wine. While you could absolutely cook a perfect steak at home, it's so much nicer when someone does it for you. The best place for this amazing meal? A steakhouse with leather banquettes and linen tablecloths. A restaurant where you can order your favorite cut of meat and not worry about the cleanup. 

So, you've made it to the best steakhouse in your neighborhood and you know which steak and side you're ordering. The only thing left is what to drink with it. While some prefer cocktails, a bottle of wine is always a great choice. Not only will you be able to enjoy a couple of glasses over the course of your meal, but you'll also have something that will enhance the whole experience. But how do you choose? 

Many people believe that a full-bodied red is the way to go. Luckily, Peggy Kearns Dean — the sommelier at Pacific Standard Prime in Redondo Beach, California — told us that's not your only option. As a matter of fact, she suggested there are several things to consider before ordering that perfect glass or bottle.

Pick a grape or region to start

When you first receive the wine list there's one very important question you have to answer before you even look at it: What do you like? After that, start to narrow it down. Are you a red or white fan? Do you prefer pinot noir grapes, chardonnay grapes, or hybrid wine grapes? Do you like domestic wines or are you more of an international fan? By answering these simple questions you'll be able to hone in on a certain type of wine, and suddenly that long list won't seem so daunting. 

"Wine lists are generally organized by grape variety or region or a combination of both," Dean explains. When the list is broken down like that, Dean says it makes it easier for the customer to decide if they want to stay in their comfort zone or be a little more adventurous and maybe try a wine they've never had before but heard is good. "People are either drinking what they always drink or are trying something new," she says with a smile.

Don't be shy about telling your sommelier what you want to spend

Price is always something to consider when perusing the wine list, and Dean says it's helpful if the customer is upfront about how much they want to spend. "I feel like everybody has a comfort zone," she explains. "Are they being budget-conscious tonight, or are they celebrating something and maybe want to get a bottle that's sort of a splurge for them?" 

"Nobody is judging anybody," Dean continues. "That's just very useful information because we want to make people happy and I have those wines on my list for a reason because a lot of people don't want to spend a lot on a bottle of wine." If you do decide on a cheaper bottle, they're easy to find since Dean says most lists categorize their wines from low to high.

But don't discount a wine just because it's cheaper. "It doesn't necessarily mean they're bad," Dean clarifies. "Price tends to usually be tied to how much money went into the process of making the wine, not necessarily quality. There are great quality wines all over the board with price."

Lighter wines pair best with leaner cuts of meat

While many believe that a bold red wine, like a merlot or syrah, is the best option when it comes to a steak dinner, Dean says not to count out the lighter wines. "You want the weight of your wine to match the weight of your food," she explains. That weight comes from the tannins in the wine which are responsible for a lot of the wine's character. So, wines with fewer tannins tend to compliment those leaner cuts

"Generally filets and filet mignon are lighter cuts of meat that don't have a lot of marbling or fat to them, so you can get away with a lighter style red wine," Dean explains. She believes wines like pinot noir or a red blend are good options. Even a rosé would be a nice choice. But it really comes down to the type of steak you're ordering.

Fattier cuts pair well with heavier wines

If you're a traditionalist and want to stick with red wine for your steak dinner, then Dean says to choose a heartier red like a cabernet or malbec since there tends to be a higher tannin content in those wines. Dean teaches us that tannins are a compound found in grape skins that like to grab onto proteins. So, when you drink a heavy red wine on its own, it tends to stick to your tongue and cheeks. "But when you have a nice, juicy steak in your mouth, [the tannins] kind of mellow each other out and really work well," Dean explains. "So, something like a ribeye or tomahawk, which have a lot more marbling and fat and richness, you could go for a much heavier wine with more of those tannins." 

That marbling Dean is talking about is just another form of fat on your steak. Now, we understand that fat is often considered a big no-no in the food world — but not when it comes to steak. In this case, not only does that fat make the steak richer, but it also adds more flavor. Flavor that pairs quite well with those full-bodied reds Dean talks about, and can also stand up to them at the same time.

Certain whites pair well with steak

Believe it or not, whites are also a nice mate with several different cuts. As a matter of fact, Dean is often asked if it's okay to have white wine with steak and she says it "absolutely" is. But in those cases, she recommends "a richer style of wine." Chardonnays or white Bordeaux blends are the best choices because Dean points out that both of these wines "tend to have a little fuller body, a little creaminess to them because they've been aged in oak barrels and they also tend to have a little higher alcohol content. So, it just gives that fuller mouthfeel that will match the richness to the steak."

While you may prefer a lighter white wine like a sauvignon blanc or riesling, Dean says these aren't the best choices because of how they're produced and the fact that "they are so light and crisp." They simply won't stand up to the steak, no matter how lean it is. Instead, Dean suggests saving these wines for seafood or vegetarian entrées. 

Acidity is important to balance out flavor

When it comes to preparing a steak correctly, you never want to skimp on the salt and pepper. That seasoning not only enhances the flavor of the steak, it also enhances the flavor of the wine. See, most wines have a certain amount of acidity to them. While whites tend to have more acid than reds, each and every bottle has some hiding inside. "People don't think about acidity when they think of wine," Dean explains. "But that has to be present to balance the alcohol in the fruit." That acidity plays perfectly with the salt that's often sprinkled over the steak. 

Because that acidity is so important to the flavor of both the wine and the steak it's paired with, you want to make sure the wine you're drinking is nice and cold. Both reds and whites should always be stored at cooler temperatures because acidic wines, no matter the color, are just better chilled. Those cooler temperatures dim the sweetness of the wine while boosting its acid, thereby creating a brighter glass and a more enjoyable dining experience.

Don't discount a red blend

There's a common myth that wine blends are often considered inferior options. Those bottles that are perhaps only a few years old, less expensive, and come with a screw cap. Even though Dean maintains that "there's a lot of bad wine that's out there," she tells us there are plenty of red blends that are definitely worth a sip or two, especially for those who don't know much about wine. Blends "have a little bit of this grape, a little bit of that grape, and they all have different characteristics that work in harmony and balance together," she explains. "So, that's usually very pleasing to most palates."  

Not sure which wines are blends? Don't fret. Dean tells us there are plenty available and that any blend from any region will pair pretty well with whatever cut you order. "Some of the most expensive wines on earth, aka, Bordeaux, are all blends," Dean says, laughing. "Most people don't know that."

Sauce is an important factor when selecting your wine pairing

If you've ever scanned a steakhouse menu, you've probably noticed it separated into sections. There will be different cuts of meat, of course, a selection of sides, and then a small list of the best sauces to ladle over your medium-rare filet or ribeye. Sauces like béarnaise, bordelaise, or green peppercorn will compliment both the flavor of the meat as well as the flavor of the wine. It's for this reason if you like sauce, Dean says you should consider pairing the wine with sauce rather than the meat. 

Although there are some steak sauces that Dean believes "aren't the most wine-friendly," because most have both salt and fat in them, they'll marry with whichever wine you choose. For example, béarnaise is often made with white wine vinegar and butter, so this would be the time to try a creamier chardonnay with that filet rather than the heavier cab or merlot.

Vintage isn't as important as it used to be

One thing people used to consider when picking a bottle of wine was its age. But Dean says that's no longer the case because so many younger wines are just as good as those older options. "Most wines nowadays are meant to be enjoyed within five years of being bottled," she declares. In fact, a survey from Sonoma State in 2018 showed that 39% of Americans open up their bottles within a week or two of purchase. Dean believes that's because a lot of wineries today are using more advanced techniques to distill their wines so that those reds, whites, and rosés are ready to imbibe as soon as they're released and don't have to sit in a wine cellar for several years. 

If you are celebrating a special occasion though, and want a wine that was bottled the same year you were married or born, there are usually a few on the steakhouse's list. In those situations, Dean says grabbing a bottle with a meaningful vintage "might be fun," but it's no longer a necessary factor like it once was.

Ask if there are any wines that may not be on the list

For those occasions where money isn't a factor, be sure to ask what they have in the back. Dean says steakhouses will often have a few pricier wines that aren't on the list. Wines that are "really nice, rare, expensive bottles" are generally reserved for people who want something special and don't mind spending a little more. 

On the other hand, if you're not in the mood for a whole bottle but don't like any of the by-the-glass options, ask the sommelier to open a bottle. "If someone will commit to two glasses, I'll open a bottle, any bottle, on our list," Dean reveals. Then she just divides the cost of the bottle by the cost of the glass. Don't worry — the remaining wine won't go to waste. Dean says she'll simply finish off the bottle by selling what's left to another patron later. "People shouldn't be shy to ask, 'can I get a glass or two?' because most people will be accommodating to that," she explains.