Order wine like an expert with these smart tips.

By Jason Wilson
December 02, 2013
Credit: Alex Farnum

When I think about people’s fear of wine lists, what immediately pops to mind is a story a friend told me about her rich and powerful boss, a wildly successful restaurateur from Philadelphia, who was at a dinner with his investors in New York to discuss the expansion of his empire into Manhattan. As the story goes, the restaurateur phoned his head sommelier back in Philadelphia from the restroom stall, secretly clutching the wine list, and pleaded in a whispered voice for help so he didn’t embarrass himself.

Now doesn’t that sound silly? Of course it does. But how many of you had this as your first thought: I wish I had a sommelier on my payroll I could call.

I, too, used to treat the wine list like a hot potato when it arrived. When I was younger and on a date, for instance, I used the classic order-the-second-cheapest-bottle strategy, scared to death I might seem broke. As I learned more about wine, I quickly realized restaurants were onto this, and the second-cheapest bottle generally was the worst value on the list.

Here are a few better tips on how to hack the wine list:

Do your homework. Most restaurants post their wine lists online. Beforehand, you can compare retail prices at Wine-Searcher.com to find “good values” (considered 2 times the retail price or less). You can even research a cheat sheet of facts to impress your dining companions!

Go off the beaten path. Learn to love lesser-known grapes like Dolcetto from Italy’s Piedmont, Carmenére from Chile, Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley, or Blaufränkisch from Austria.

Study a map. Prestige bottles from famous regions get pricey, but look to neighboring areas for value. Premier Cru Bordeaux, for instance, sounds astronomical, but something from more modest zip codes like Côtes de Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur offers value.

Drink white wine. I can’t tell you how many of my friends (mostly male) say, “I don’t drink white wine,” which is dumb. White wines like Riesling from Germany and Alsace and Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley are favorites of the wine cognoscenti, and these prestige whites are cheaper than reds and often pair better with food (and not just fish).

Jason Wilson is the author of Boozehound and the new digital wine series, Planet of the Grapes. He edits TableMatters.com.