How to Navigate a Wine List

When dining out, there may come a time that you will be handed a wine list and asked to “choose a wine for dinner.” Where to start, how to start, and what to look for, will all be thoughts speeding through your mind, while all along hoping to make the right choice and impress the other guests. Maybe you are not quite an expert—but you understand wine, you enjoy wine—there is a reason the wine list was handed to you.  Or, you are far from an expert but you enjoy wine and everyone knows it, so naturally the list was handed to you in hopes your love of wine will translate into an amazing bottle selection for the evening. Either way you are now on the spot—so here are a few pointers and suggestions, whether you are an aspiring oenophile or not, to make sure your selection is a homerun!

First, identify the style and layout of the wine list itself. It will make it easier to read and much easier to hone in on the right area to make the best selection. Wine lists are typically organized on a base level by wine style: sparkling, white, rosé, or red. Next is where it can become tricky, depending on the size of the list and the individual who writes and maintains the list itself. This is the ultimate key. I have broken wine list styles into four major categories:

Regional: Where the wine is from will be the header, typically by country with sub categories of smaller regions within each country.

Varietal: The grape or grapes used to make the wine will be the title of each section.  For instance, “Chardonnay” will be the header and the selection of Chardonnays would be listed below.

Weight:  This style of organizing a wine list is a bit more difficult. “Weight,” refers to the body of the wine and how it effects the mid-palate. In this situation, “Weight,’ becomes the sub-category almost always. For instance, a list that is first organized by region may then be further organized by weight.

Price: Much like a list that is organized by weight, a price-organized list is typically a sub-category of a larger category. It is a list that simply puts the least expensive wine at the top of the category and then progressively lists selections to the highest priced bottle.

Inside each category the list may be broken down again; for instance, it may be a regional wine list, but inside each region, the specific bottles may be organized by weight or price. If you have gotten this far, but need a small nudge to completely understand the list in front of you, do not be afraid to simply ask— whoever is attending to you should be able to answer. On the other hand, if this all seems foreign, do not be afraid to ask from the initial greeting how the list is organized so that you can then concentrate the effort into making an amazing selection.

Now that the style and organization of the list is determined, it is time to start zeroing in on your chosen wine. At this point you will want to determine a myriad of different factors that will essentially guide you to your ultimate decision.

Price: What is your price ceiling? This will immediately help to narrow down a selection.

Starter bottle or dining bottle: Is your initial selection meant to carry through the dining experience, or is it a bottle to fill time and awaken your palate? A bottle to start may be easier to select on a broader scale, whereas a bottle meant for the entire dining experience may need a more attentive approach.

Cuisine style: Does the establishment where you are dining have a specific style of cuisine? If so, it will help focus your attention when choosing a bottle for the meal.

Guests’ meal preferences: Are there any restrictions or guidelines for the guests in your party? Is there a vegetarian or pescatarian, someone who loves or hates spiciness, or any other form of dietary restriction? This will narrow down the menu, which will in turn narrow the wine list.

Wine list strengths and weaknesses:
Where does the wine list excel? Where might it fall short? If a list is heavy in a style or region, the options in that section can be more esoteric and focused. It may possibly be the wine steward’s way of telling you that this style or region goes best with our cuisine. This is extremely important to pick up on—it could be a game changer.

Once you have determined all of this, it is time to either make a choice, or ask a few questions! This is the perfect time to ask to see the Sommelier or the person in charge of the wine list. I guarantee they will be more than thrilled to speak with you and answer any number of questions. You may have narrowed it down to a few bottles and need a little more detail to decide, or you’re just completely lost at this point and wish you could cry out for help—either way, do not be afraid to ask! When speaking with the wine steward, here are a few pointers to help narrow down the field of selections (these may also come in handy even if you do not choose to speak to the person in charge):

  • Be upfront on your price range, it helps everyone and breaks the ice.
  • Know what you like and don’t like (this includes your dining companions), and describe your likes and dislikes in any way possible.
  • Vintages: an older wine is not always a better wine!
  • Forget about the “white with fish, red with steak” mentality… it is long outdated.
  • Ask about “diamonds in the rough,” or what is exciting and different on the list.
  • In regards to the above, many Sommeliers keep a special selection in the cellar that is not on the public wine list that they love to talk about and sell to the inquisitive guest.

When it is all said and done, you should be secretly smiling, knowing the perfect bottle of wine for the specific situation has been served… and it was all your decision.  Take your time, read the list. Whoever wrote the wine list for the establishment put in a great deal of time, effort, and passion in an order to provide you with the best possible selection. Said person would also love to talk with you pre- or post-selection, so do not hesitate at any time to ask to see them. If you need more time to decide, but need to quench the thirst, I always say that bubbles are a great way to begin any dining experience. Or have a cocktail, sit back, relax, and secretly plot your wine list domination.

— Chris Peterman, Director of Operations, Eighty-Ate Hospitality