If you're not already a wine savant, trying to pick a bottle from a sprawling wine list can feel like playing pin the tail on the donkey.
And since there's no standard operating procedure for designing a wine list, every restaurant does theirs a little differently, which means it's hard to know where to begin.
But the key to finding something that'll make you happy isn't decoding the wine list, it's knowing how to talk to the sommelier or beverage director who put the list together in the first place.
Most sommeliers live for a conversation with customers who can provide just a sense of what they're looking for. Relationships are a two-way street: With the right guidance, they've got a chance to find a bottle that's the perfect fit just for you. Sommeliers like to see people enjoying the list they curated. And happy drinkers tip well.
The wine conversation is a little like a first date: First you talk a little about yourself to break the ice. Then you ask some thoughtful questions and make sure to listen to the answers for clues about common interests. And, if all goes well, everyone gets drunk and has a fun time and wants to do it again soon.
Your first move, pre chitchat: Decide how much you're willing to spend. Whether you're searching for bargains or feel like breaking the bank, be sure to have a specific price in mind, and don't be afraid to share it.
The conversation will go best if you have some idea—any idea—about what kind of wine you like. Vague descriptions are okay. Really. Phrases like "I want something big and bold with a lot of personality" or "fruity reds just aren't my thing" can go a long way. Talk about the food you're ordering, or at least a potential protein you have in mind. And remember to talk price. It's not crass to say you want to stay under $40; it's helpful and will speed up the process of finding a wine you'll like.
The sommelier should have a general road map of your tastes and budget—and a few potential routes in mind. Now it's his turn to talk. He might suggest a red wine from Spain, throwing in a few descriptive attributes. If you're not sure you've found a match, use what you've learned to keep the conversation going: "Well, we like the sound of a darker fruit, but I'm not so into that peppery nose you just mentioned." Or you can ask for a wine from a different country than the one originally proposed. The sommelier's brain will spring into action, sifting through the wine list with the goal of providing you with a wine that will meet all of your expectations.
Once you've picked a wine, remember what you like about it (and anything you don't) to help you navigate your next whale of a list.
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