5 Tips on How to Navigate a Restaurant Wine List


By Amanda McCrossin.

Being presented the wine list can insight terror, panic, and distress. But the wine list is not as scary a place as it might seem and it can often be a lot of fun if you how to navigate it.

The restaurant wine list is comprised of wines that reflect the overarching philosophy of the restaurant and/or pairs with the cuisine. Lists are often curated by the sommelier or owner of the restaurant and, when done well, can greatly enhance a guest’s overall experience. My first piece of advice is to identify what a restaurant’s forte or vision is and capitalize on it. Just as you’re unlikely to order a steak at a pizza shop, it would be strange to order a wacky jura wine from a list that leans heavily in Napa Valley wines. Try to stick to what they focus on and if you’re unsure, ask!

Which brings me to my next point—if a restaurant employs a sommelier—USE HIM/HER. The era of pushy, stuffy sommeliers has been replaced with a booming generation of young, excited, knowledgeable, and friendly faces. Sommeliers are there to help and will be your absolutely BEST weapon in navigating a wine list. No one will ever know a wine list better than the Somm who lives and breathes it every night and who likely personally chose many if not all of the selections. In fact, there is rarely a situation in which I won’t defer to the sommelier at restaurant I’m dining at, even though I could likely figure it out myself. He or she knows the food, how the wines have been drinking lately, and can often recommend something you might never have even thought of.

So, what do you when you defer to the Somm? Well, I’ve found that there are a few key pieces of information that everyone should have before they have that first conversation. And if you don’t have it yet, ask the sommelier to return when you do. There’s NO RUSH. Take a deep breath and remember YOU are in the driver’s seat. This is your show and he/she is there to ensure that you have an amazing experience at the restaurant.

This is the one thing I think too many people are afraid of talking about early on. We LOVE parameters to work within. No one wants to sell you a bottle that’s way out of your price range. Whether it’s a total wine budget for the evening or just a general I’d like to be around this price per bottle, you should have a general idea of what you want to spend. If you’re uncomfortable verbally communicating that to the sommelier, find any bottle on the list around that price, point, and tell them I’d like to be here.

Knowing what the crowd wants is half the battle. Aunt Susan only drinks chard but Cousin Tony only likes red; mom’s not drinking but Uncle Charlie will drink everything you put in front of him. Knowing aversions, preferences, and general consumption rate will keep everyone happy and help the sommelier to better select.

This sort of goes hand-in-hand with my last two points but, having a goal in mind for the meal can really help to narrow it down as well, i.e. do you want to pair every course, do you want to impress your boss, do you want to have something really uncomplicated? This information may not seem useful to you, but it’s incredibly helpful for the sommelier who knows the likelihood of what impresses, what’s complicated, and what doesn’t require decanting.

This is probably the most useful of the information you’ll have ready because it offers the fewest variables. Sure, tasting notes and words like “tannin” come up ALL the time, but everyone’s perception of those things is different. “Earthy” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone but if you tell me you love Caymus, I’ll have a pretty good idea of what you’re looking for. Using apps like Vivino and Delectable to keep track of wines you’ve had and liked or disliked can really assist with this and won’t have you trying to dig through your memory bank for that bottle you had two Christmas Eve’s ago right before you took down the whole bowl of eggnog.

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