How to Order Wine in a Restaurant

(Originally published May 2003)

Everyone wants to know how not to get burned when ordering wine in a restaurant. While it helps if you are a World Famous Wine Reviewer with encyclopedic knowledge of every region, vintage and varietal you don't have to be Hanes to do right by yourself and that special someone or client across the table. Here's a select few tips.

First, what does it mean to "get burned"? Simply put, it means one of three things (not all may matter to you). It may mean that the wine you order is a ripoff, that is, it is overpriced for what it is. For example, paying $50 for a bottle that retails for $12. It may mean that the wine just sucks, regardless of whether or not it is priced fairly. Or it may mean that the wine is actually fairly priced and of good quality, just that it does not pair well with the meals being consumed that evening.

On the first score, Hanes can only be of moderate help since -- for reasons that Hanes can never fathom -- restaurants make the vast majority of their profit off of booze and not food and finding a fairly priced bottle remains an arduous task at best, like rummaging the sales racks at Macys or Filene's Basement. Hanes can help a bit more with the second aspect since there are strategies to reading a wine list. The third, ehh, Hanes doesn't care if he is eating a chili cheese dog with the finest red Burgundy so you are on your own. Actually, Hanes can't help much at all but he has to write something.

The most important aspect of avoiding the old third degree when ordering wine is to look at things from a macro viewpoint. That is, in what kind of hash house are you eating? There are different kinds of restaurants (it's true Ralf!), and the wine lists follow ownership's "vision" for the restaurant. It's not a good policy to follow the same wine ordering strategy for, say, a night out at Le Bernardin as it is for your local Italian trattoria. As a result, Hanes will divide his advice into two categories, one for your basic restaurant and one for your fancy-schmancy, expense account type joint.

By "average" restaurant Hanes means a place where the food may be anything from pedestrian to excellent but the prices and atmosphere are not supposed to draw the glitterati and models by the score. It could be a tapas joint or a Thai place, who knows. The point is that the wine list is not going to be a major item of focus for management. The wine buyer may like wine a lot but chances are she or he is also the floor manager, accountant and emergency chef too. There's only so much time in the day. So, chances are they may cut as many corners as possible. What does this mean in a practical sense?

First, the wine buyer may not even have devised the wine list to begin with, his or her wine supplier may have. A lot of restaurants get their wine from the same wholesaler from whom they buy their hard liquor (it being easier to deal with one vendor than multiple vendors). If Wholesaler X has free rein to do what she or he pleases, there's going to be some clunkers on the list that had to be moved from the warehouse (even if at a fair, discounted price to the restaurant). The wholesaler may have a great Californian Merlot and super Australian Shiraz but a nasty French Sauvignon Blanc. Suitability of wine selection to cuisine be damned, as long as the wine list has a Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay on it, restaurant management is more often than not satisfied. This kind of stuff is very hard to ferret out but it is possible (Hanes was once in a wine bar where he cagily noticed that every wine on the list was from a single wholesaler). You can ask to see a couple of bottles and you can look on the back and see if the same distributor is listed. If playing such games is not for you (after all, you're not as anal as Hanes), here's some things to look for to get at some of the better wines on the list.

It is a well-noted truism that one should avoid the house wine. This is usually the cheapest plonk available and a wine on which the house should make a killing. Killing customers with this swill is just an added bonus. Whether sold by the glass, carafe or bottle avoid this and the other cheapest bottle on the menu. There's a reason it is the cheapest. Plus, as noted, the markup over retail will be the highest. Most restaurants have at least one or two pricey "big name" wines on the list, hoping that someone is in there for a special occasion or a drunken investment banker decides to show up randomly. While the markup over retail on these are usually a bit lower (say an $80 retail bottle selling on the list for $140), chances are it still isn't a bargain. It's the middle ground that you want to play in, so throw out the highs and the lows from the start.

Here's where you can find a good bottle that retails for $20 and is only $50 on the wine list (only???). How to do this? Avoid "name brands" if you can. If you recognize the name, chances are that most of the clientele does too and the house would be fools to not take advantage of this by charging more for familiarity. Ordering wine can be stressful and a familiar name will alleviate this and move units even if stupidly priced -- a lot of people will pay more for a bottle they have tasted previously than risk the unknown. Yet, as we all know, there's little reward without risk, and going for an unknown pays off often enough at the $30 to $50 bottle price range. Unless a third party created the wine list, there's a good reason that particular wine is on the list. So, you may love Zinfandel but do not recognize the producer on the list -- don't be too daunted, it may be a hidden gem snuck onto the wine list by the wine buyer. This is especially so when you get above $40. Few souls are hardy enough to lay down that much coin for an unknown Barbera d'Alba or New Zealand Pinot Noir. Hanes usually draws the conclusion here that someone loves the wine too much to pass on it and hopes the staff can convince enough customers to order it to make the wine a worthwhile investment.

What's the fly in the ointment here? Really crappy wine lists! These are the ones that don't tell you the vintage of the wine (even though the 2000 may be great and the 2001 shitty). Or they don't tell you anything more than it's a "Sancerre" or "Côtes-du-Rhône" -- uhh, there are hundreds of wineries making Côtes-du-Rhône and naturally they are not all the same! Or worse, they just list the grape and don't even care to say where it is from. Umm, "Cabernet"... From Chile? California? France? These just kill Hanes. In such situations, with so little information to go on, you need to take a defensive stance.

If you know anything about vintage generalizations, and the wine list provides the wine's vintage, make sure you are not ordering a subpar year that the restaurant got on close-out for a song. (A corollary is make sure the bottle served is actually the vintage listed on the wine list -- a lot of times there are switches made that go unannounced. Probably another reason restaurants don't want to list the vintage dates, you don't have to reprint when the vintage changes and you can't get called out for pulling a "bait and switch.") Even with, for example, a $15 bottle of Cabernet there can be vast differences in quality from one year to the next. If you loved the 1999, that's little guarantee you will love the 2000.

While thinking defensively, you may want to pick a wine that you believe has a lower "basement." That is, if you really hate a bad Sauvignon Blanc but don't mind a bad Riesling as much, with no specifics available get the latter. Better bland than horrid. For better or worse, in a lot of moderately priced restaurants you want a pleasant, easy-to-drink wine, not necessarily something you want for your 50th birthday.

Most waitstaff has little interest in wine. It's a sad fact but it holds water (it does, Ralf!). They are just marking time until their band makes it big or they are "discovered" by Spielberg. So, don't ask them what goes best with the bouillabaisse or the Cornish hen, they will just parrot a few things the manager told them. You may, however, get a more interesting perspective on the wine list by asking questions like: "What wine on the list haven't you tried? Why?" "What's the newest wine on the list?" "What's been selling the best?" (you may want to avoid it if everyone is pushing it) Throw them off their game and you may be able to suss out if they actually like wine or know things like what's been sitting on the list (and in the basement) for two years.

If you want to get aggressive, look for the crazy wines. Again, familiarity sells. If it is unfamiliar someone has to like it enough to take the risk of tying up capital in it. Why is that Grüner Veltliner, Scheurebe or Petit Verdot on the list? Maybe because they kick ass over the Chardonnay or Chianti. Hanes has had recent success in restaurants buying wines from grapes such as Torrontés, Picpoul and Charbono even though he had never heard of the particular producers before. If you wouldn't expect to see a Tannat on a certain restaurant's wine list, inquire as to why it's there. It might make your night.

While one would hope that it would get easier to pick a winning wine from a fancy wine list, alas, this ain't always the case. Swank restaurants, the ones where entrees cost in the $20's or more, also have to deal with the fact that familiarity rules the roost. This has to explain why Silver Oak hasn't gone out of business. Something has to explain this. Please. If it is intimidating to pick a wine when there are only six whites and six reds on the menu, it's only worse when there's a hundred of each. How to pick a winner here when the stakes are so high?

First, these places have sommeliers (the wine steward) and they should be trustworthy if the restaurant deserves its rep and your money. That said, Hanes is a cynic to his core so you still need an angle here or there. Here's a couple that work for him... and you don't even have to buy his instructional video!

Although it does come with a handsome Naugahyde-covered vintage chart and Sumeric calendar...

The "best" wine on a wine list is the one that is ready to drink tonight. Most less expensive restaurants should stock wines that are not meant for aging but for immediate consumption. High-end restaurants, however, carry the best names, wines with serious street cred. These wines may possess great structure and promise -- for ten years from now! Don't fall for the simple trap of ordering the best wine from the best vintage. Hey, 1998 may be great for Barolo but they are nowhere near ready to drink. A truly great restaurant will pepper their wine list with pedigreed wines that are ready to drink tonight. This may mean an older, well-aged vintage. Which also may mean it's out of your price range. Or it may mean a wine from an "off" vintage that does not require a great deal of aging to mature enough to hit the high notes.

Wait, Hanes! Just a bit earlier you warned us against thoughtless (or worse) restaurants selling us fools wines from subpar vintages. Now you counsel to seek them out! Ahh, tis true, tis true. Again, you want a wine ready to drink not a trophy that your children should enjoy one day. Hanes has had great luck in some of Manhattan's fanciest bistros with "off vintage" wines that sang beautifully. Two that come to mind were the 1995 "La Villa" from Elio Altare in Piedmont, Italy and the 1994 "Flaccionello" from Fontodi in Tuscany, Italy. Both were in their prime and hitting all cylinders (but won't be ten years hence). And the bonus was that because they were from less-regarded vintages, their prices were super-sweet. In the case of the Altare, it was only $10 more than the current vintage was selling at retail! Score! If you show some interest in ordering a wine that is good-to-go and express a willingness to go against conventional vintage wisdom, a good sommelier or waiter should have something right up your alley.

Also, with high-end places where they should really know their wine it is a great time to experiment. They should know most excellently when the Roussanne will make a nice match with din-din or the Fiano is a better choice. And, in keeping with our general rule of sticking to the middle price range of the menu, most of these experiments should be in that same middle tier -- unless it's those tasty but so-expensive Austrian Rieslings! Why can't Hanes be rich?!

Please note that while it can be fun in terms of trying different wines, ordering by the glass is one of the most expensive ways to go, even if the bottle is $80. Unless you really just want one glass (and then don't invite Hanes), buying the bottle beats ordering by the glass any day.

And yet one more hint for ordering wines at fancy restaurants. See what half bottles they have on the list. Often, there's some real overlooked treats here (who orders half bottles when four people are having dinner?) which are fairly priced. And ordering two different half bottles may help you avoid poor food pairings when one person gets a steak and the other a light filet of sole. Plus, the more bottles you order the more you can experiment. And the more tasting notes you can write! Or something like that...