Gastronomy 101, a blog about food and Los Angeles restaurants

WINE: Picking out Wine in a Restaurant

There are approximately 80 jillion different wines in the world and each year, there is a new vintage of those wines. Not to mention the blends and the new arrivals and the special editions. There is no way that one single person could come even close to knowing about every single wine there is. In fact, the most that one could hope for it to know a decent-sounding fraction.

When someone has managed to accumulate their decent fraction and can safely call themselves of expert or an enthusiast or whatever makes them feel the coolest, then chances are, when they go to a restaurant, they can find at least one wine they recognize, or can make an educated guess about. But what about the rest of us schmos? How do we negotiate a restaurant wine list?

The first thing to do is to learn not to fear the wine list.
Especially if it's a gigantic big binder with millions of pages and categories. Do not give in to your fear or exasperation and order the house wine. Even if it's an okay wine, you can bet that the restaurant is overcharging for it. Hopefully you'll be ordering a bottle, but if not try one of the premium wines by the glass, if the restaurant is offering.

If you're going on a really important date and are still wary of that big binder, if you're not ready to take that step yet, ask the restaurant if they allow you to bring your own. Many restaurants will, but will charge a corkage fee, meaning a fee they charge to allow you the bottle and to open and pour it for you. Don't be afraid to ask what the corkage fee is. Most of the time it's quite reasonable, depending on the fanciness of the restaurant and the price of the wines on their list. A good corkage fee is $10-25. Anything more than that is expensive, but if the restaurant is very fancy you will almost always pay a high corkage fee. In Los Angeles, the higher end is $30-50. In New York it can get up to $85. At the most expensive places, you will still be spending less than to buy a bottle at the restaurant, depending on the cost of the wine you bring yourself, and the mark-up at the restaurant. You don't want to bring a wine that is already on the wine list, though. It's very rude, so unless you know the wine list, ask the restaurant if they have the wine you want before bringing it with you.

So how should you choose which wine you want to drink? Well, the best case scenario is that there is a sommelier. A sommelier is a professional wine chooser. The sommelier chooses the wine that's on the menu, he or she chooses the wine that goes with tasting menus, and he or she can help you choose the wine you will drink. They are paid to do this and one hopes that they do it well. All you need to do is tell them what you are ordering and what your taste in wine is, if you know, and they should be able to select something nice.

There are some unfortunately snobby sommeliers out there. I have witnessed a sommelier explaining on an internet forum that if he thinks or knows that the customer is a wine novice, he will give them the cheap or banal stuff and not "waste" the interesting stuff on them because he thought they wouldn't know the difference anyway. I would hope that's not a usual attitude for a sommelier. A sommelier should look forward to the wine novice, because it gives them a chance to create a new wine enthusiastic by showing them something special.

If they don't have a sommelier, then asking the waiter can be a risky proposition. The waiter may not know anything about wine, or may even be asked to push a certain wine by the management.

If you have looked at all the choices and are still not sure, my "Wine for Dummies," gives a list of generally reliable wines. It would be too much to reproduce it, you'll have to get the book yourself! But to summarize in very general terms, you should order a white to go with seafood, poultry, risotto, white meat, and Asian-inspired dishes. Order red with roast chicken, spicy food (although I prefer reisling or sparkling wine with spicy food), red meat, pizza (I also like reisling with pizza). The chart breaks this down further and gives you the grape to look for with each dish.

Once you've chosen your wine, the waiter or sommelier will probably bring it out, present you with the bottle (perhaps with a flourish) and then offer you a taste. So how do you conduct yourself when this happens, without looking like a fool?

First, understand that all of this is done for a reason and there's nothing special you need to do. When the server presents the bottle to you, all they are doing is making sure they brought the correct wine for you. Check the label and make sure it is the name and vintage of wine that you ordered. If so, then give a thumbs up. Or actually, just nodding will be fine. Not everyone can be as classy as I am with the fabulous hand gestures. I don't recommend high fiving the server for their successful procurement of the wine. They're still holding the bottle and you don't want them to drop your fantastic choice of wine.

The server will then open the bottle for you. They may place the cork in front of you. This is so you can smell and look at the cork to try to get early warning if the wine may be corked or otherwise bad. Personally, I have never done this. I would feel very strange smelling and inspecting the cork, and also vaguely dirty. Something about the sniffing. In any case, you really want to taste the wine before deciding on whether it is bad or not.

If it's an older red wine, the server may decant the wine for you.

The server will pour just a small taste into your glass. This is not your pour. This is for you to take a sniff, and then take a sip and signal your approval of the bottle. You should really only cry foul at this point if you think that the wine is bad or something wrong with it, not just because you don't like it. But if you really hate it, or you're not sure whether it's bad or you just don't like the taste of it, don't be shy. Ask your friends, or tell the server how you feel. The server will either bring you a new bottle of the same (if it's bad) or allow you to choose a different wine (if it's okay, but you hate it). Once you've approved the wine, the server pours for everyone and then you're on your own. Bon appetit!


Congrats on another great vino installation.

Last night we went with another couple to Angelini Osteria. FINALLY!!! Two bottles of Chianti, one pizza special, one breaded veal chop, one pork chop, one veal shank, and one whole Branzino, chocolate torte and afogatto later...WHEW!!!

I wrote ol' Gino a letter today to explain why I was convulsing in his establishment yesterday. Pure ecstasy. He is a mad genius.

said by Acme Instant Food at 7:14 PM Delete

Thanks! I *heart* Angelini. The branzino makes me swoon. I need to go back there soon ... YUM

said by KT at 7:16 PM Delete

that's BA-jillion, missy!


Did you see my post from months and months ago about doing your own wine tasting class?

OH, and have the branzino at JiRaffe. it's soooooooooo yummy.

said by JoAnna at 4:59 PM Delete

Well. It looks like I need to get my hyperbolic math terms straight.

But only after I read this do it yourself wine post!

said by KT at 5:06 PM Delete

Creative Commons license The content on Gastronomy 101 may be reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.