The Wine List, Please

Simple tips for avoiding disaster when ordering wine in a restaurant.

Ordering wine in a restaurant can be intimidating, but it shouldn’t be.

Knowing what you like and utilizing the knowledge of your server are the two most important things you can do to ensure a pleasant experience.

I learned this the hard way many years ago when I ended up with something I disliked so much that I couldn’t drink it. Tears streaming down my face, I refused my husband’s suggestion to send it back. What happened? How did we find ourselves in a very expensive restaurant, staring at an equally expensive bottle of wine we couldn’t enjoy?

The waiter talked me into it. 

“This is an amazing Zinfandel! Everyone loves it," he said.

Everyone except me. Just because someone else likes a wine doesn’t mean you will, which leads to rule number one: Know what you like and communicate it to your server. Use names of wines you have enjoyed in the past. Offer up as much information as possible so that the server can guide you toward similar types of wine. If your waiter seems unfamiliar with the wine list or makes comments like, “This is really popular,” ask if there is someone on staff to help you. Falling back on what other people like indicates a lack of knowledge and should be avoided.

What happens if you go to all of this trouble and you still don’t like what’s in your glass? That’s a tough one. If you ordered something by the glass I say speak up and ask for something different. 

If you ordered a bottle, it’s a little trickier. Technically, a restaurant is not obligated to take back a bottle of wine if there is nothing wrong with it. However, good restaurants are in the business of customer service, and if you are genuinely dissatisfied, there is no harm in being honest. Be polite, yet truthful. It will be up to your food server or the manager to make the call.

What if there is something wrong with the wine? The classic ritual of presenting a bottle and allowing the guest to sample it first is not just about showmanship. Sommeliers (wine servers) in the middle ages were required to taste a wine first before serving it to the king. Why? In case it was poisoned or rancid, the sommelier would take the hit, and the king would be safe. 

Thankfully, unless you’re an international spy, you don’t have to worry about being poisoned. But even today there is a small percentage of wine that can be ‘corked.' 

Corked wines have been infected by a harmless bacteria that can cause it to smell musty. If you think the wine smells off or something is wrong, tell your server right away. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does the protocol is for the server to present you with a new bottle. 

A lovely wine can enhance your meal and should be a fun and enjoyable experience. So don't be afraid to ask for that wine list!  


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