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How to Choose a Wine at a Restaurant

Saturday night has arrived.  You’ve been seated with your spouse, maybe some friends, and the time has come to kick back, relax, and celebrate the weekend’s arrival.  Hoo-ray.  But wait – what’s this?  Your server has just handed you a wine list, its weight and bulk not unlike your newborn.  All eyes are on you.  So… what happened to relaxing?  There are just so many variables!  Price, color, region, pairings, lions, tigers, bears… oh my. 

Don’t fret.  Let our rules of thumb below help you strategize to ensure your drinks will satisfy (the palate as well as the wallet!) 

These are general principles – more likely than not to be true.

  1. Do your research. Before you hit the restaurant, have a peek at their wine list in advance. Most post it for your previewing pleasure.  This gives you a chance to do a little research.  In 10 minutes, you can choose a few bottles they list – look up reviews, and also what they sell for at retail so you’re aware of the markup.

  2. Order the bottle. Ordering by the glass does get your more variety.  However, there is no way to know when that bottle was first opened.  Ordering your own bottle earns you the right to watch that cork get yanked out.

  3. Mind your markups. Generally speaking, restaurants tend to mark up the lowest-priced wines the most. So if you can afford one on the high end, you’ll get more bang for your buck.  And if you don’t want to break the band, stick with a mid-range (~$40-50) wine to avoid overpaying.

  4. Know your fellow diners. Ask a few questions in advance so you know their general wine preferences, their comfort with price point, and perhaps what they might order.

  5. Ask for guidance. Tell the sommelier, or your server, what you enjoy – and don’t be afraid to set a price ceiling.  

  6. Don’t sweat the pairings. Yes, we all know – a Chardonnay with chicken, a cabernet with steak… Unless of course you don’t like Chardonnay or Cabernet.  It’s fun to pair wine with food – but don’t be beholden to the rules.  No one is judging.

  7. Experiment. How many times have you walked into your local wine shop and grabbed the same 3 – 5 bottles time and time again?  Try something new.   Who knows – next week you may be hitting a whole new aisle at your wine shop!