If you’re new to wine, ordering properly can seem like a near-impossible task. There are so many regions, so many varietals, so many producers, and so many price points. How can you find a bottle you like within your budget? To help newbies navigate the process, we uncorked the knowledge of three experts: Michael Corcoran, sommelier of Peppervine in Charlotte, North Carolina, Amy Racine, wine director for John Fraser Restaurants, including 701West in New York, and Joseph Cerione, general manager of Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, D.C. Read on for tips on how a beginner can order wine like a pro, and then find a restaurant near you on OpenTable.
Do your research
Before your visit, go to OpenTable.com to take a look at the restaurant’s wine menu and get a sense of the pricing. If there are regions, producers, varietals, or individual vintages that intrigue you, do some further digging to learn more about them.
Don’t be nervous
Calm down, the sommelier is there to help you. “Some people are hesitant because they think sommeliers are sharks who are going to upsell them, gouge them, and cheat them,” says Corcoran. “We really just want you to have a wonderful time and for you to have the best bottle for you.”
Openness and honesty are key ingredients to any successful relationship, including the one between a guest and a somm. “Don’t be afraid to say what you want,” says Racine. “If you want a white in the $60 price range, just ask for it.”
Remember three key elements
Aroma, body, and finish. Know what you like about these three elements of a wine and you’ll almost always order one you like. “The aroma is your initial impression of the wine on your nose,” Cerione clarifies. “The body (i.e. texture or weight) of the wine is either light, medium, or full. When you think about the finish, think about the difference between the tannins and acids.” Tannins are a chemical compound that gives you a dry, cottonmouth, or sandpaper feeling. Acid is what makes your salivary glands water, just like the acidity in lemon juice.
Don’t throw around vocabulary you don’t know
For example, there are misconceptions about what the word “dry,” which refers to a wine lacking any residual sugars. “It’s not an indication of fruitiness at all,” says Corcoran. “People will say they want a sweet, dry wine – but that doesn’t exist.” A wine professional will happily explain different terms to you so you can accurately describe the characteristics you like and don’t like.
Understand that all bubbles are not created equal
A novice might request Champagne when they mean another kind of sparkling wine. “All of a sudden, they have this very expensive wine in front of them that they didn’t mean to order in the first place,” says Cerione. “They might want a prosecco (an Italian sparkling wine that that tends to be sweeter than Champagne) or Crémant (a style of sparkling wine similar to Champagne but created outside the official Champagne region) instead, which are much more affordable. Always be clear if you simply want a sparkling wine or Champagne specifically.”
Go beyond your comfort zone
Many people scan the wine list in hopes of finding something they recognize so they can order a safe, familiar option. Allow the sommelier to suggest a wine you haven’t enjoyed before, so you can broaden your horizons. “Not recognizing things shouldn’t be a turn-off,” says Corcoran. “It should be exciting.”
If you’re unsure about a wine, ask if you can sample it before you commit. “And then be open about what you like or don’t like about it,” advises Racine. It may not be possible to taste it first, however, so if you’re not feeling confident, select something you can try before you buy.
Don’t like it? Let the sommelier know. “People shouldn’t be intimidated to speak their mind if they’re not happy or satisfied,” says Joseph Cerione.
If you end up falling in love with the wine, take a picture of its label and store the information in a note on your phone. If you want to be even more organized, there are some great apps to keep track of what you drink, such as Vivino and Delectable.
Now that you’re on your way to becoming an oenophile, search our city-specific start pages under “Diners’ Choice Lists” to find a list of restaurants with notable wine lists, such as this one in New York City.
Let us know your tips for how to order wine like a pro here in the comments or over on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter. And, remember to snap + share your #dishpics with us on Instagram for a chance to win in our weekly giveaway.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell.