How to Order Wine at a Restaurant

by Board Member and Restaurant Critic David Cohen

Sometimes it can be rather intimidating to order wine in a restaurant that has a huge wine cellar, lots of unfamiliar bottles, and a sommelier walking around with a silver tastevin cup hanging from a chain around their neck.  You might start asking yourself questions such as:  What do I order?  What do I do with the cork?  How do I know if the wine that I ordered is fit to drink? 

I hope this piece will demystify the experience.

The first decision is figure out if you want to drink wine by the glass, by the half bottle or by the bottle.  Ordering by the glass allows you to match a given wine with a particular course, let’s your dining companion order a different wine if they wish, and best of all--you can usually sample a taste of the wine before requesting a full glass. 

There are a couple of caveats.  Always ask your server how long the bottle that they are pouring from has been open and to pour the glass at the table.  If a wine has been open longer than 24 hours, request that they open a new bottle to ensure freshness.  Pouring the wine table side always ensures that the wine your ordered is the one being poured.

The advantage of ordering half bottles is that if your dining companion prefers white and you prefer red or your individual menu choices would suggest both red and white wines, you can each have a sufficient amount of wine to get you through the meal without ordering full bottles or a number of different single glasses. Keep in mind that half bottles mature more quickly than full bottles.

Now, if you both (or a bigger party) decide on a particular bottle to share (this may also apply to half bottles), there are some important things to consider.  You can get around five 5 oz. pours from a full bottle of wine and two plus glasses from a half bottle.  When the bottle comes to the table, you can note the level of the wine in the bottle.  It should not be below the bottom of the neck as this may indicate significant leakage from the cork and consequently oxygen may have entered the bottle, which is the enemy of wine. 

Also look for seepage or mold around the cork.  When the sommelier or server opens the bottle and presents the cork to you, pick it up and feel for dampness.  The bottom of the cork should not be dry to the touch.  If it is, the wine may not have been stored properly in a horizontal manner, possibly allowing oxygen to seep into the bottle through a defective cork.  Smelling the cork serves no useful purpose.

So, you’ve reached the moment of truth.  Now for that first taste.  You look at the color (brownish hues are a warning sign).  Swirl the wine to release the aromas, inhale and finally take a sip.  if the wine smells like dirty sweat socks, the wine is deemed “corked” (contaminated with a chemical called TCA) and should be sent back.  Any wine that tastes sour or has off-putting aromas should not be drunk.  You can always ask the sommelier to taste the wine if you thing there’s something amiss.  You might not like the wine, but there may not be anything intrinsically wrong with it.  In that case, whether the bottle will be replaced is usually at the discretion of the individual restaurant. Sometimes they may opt to sell what remains in the bottle by the glass, and allow you to select something else.  If you don’t know if you’ll like a certain wine, it is a good idea to order a taste of a couple of the wines they offer by the glass and if you find one which pleases your palate, order a bottle of that particular wine.   

Now lets move to decanting, a method used to aerate and soften a wine or remove particulate matter that develops over long periods of time in older vintages.  Decanting can be a personal preference, but generally big red wines with less than 3-5 years of bottle age should be decanted (again, at the table) to soften the wine’s tannins and bring out the flavors and bouquet to a greater extent.  Older red wines 10 years and up may need to be decanted to remove sediment that has precipitated out of the wine over the years.  In general, any red wine with significant sediment deposits along the side of the bottle during storage should always be decanted.

Finally, take advantage of the sommelier’s knowledge if the restaurant has one or more on staff.  Ask for his or her recommendations based on how much you want to spend per bottle, which wines pair well with the food you’re ordering, and what you can expect flavor and bouquet-wise from various varietals.  He or she should also be able to recommend certain vintage years for a given varietal and country of origin, if they carry multiple vintages of a particular wine  In general, red wines with more bottle age command  higher prices than more recent vintages.

Hopefully, this article will provide you with a road map for ordering wine which will please your palate and go well with your food.  It’s often a blend of art and science.  Enjoy your vino!