tips on choosing wine at a restaurant
November 05, 2021

How to Choose Wine at a Restaurant Like a Pro

Thinking of going out to a restaurant or a wine bar but not confident in how to order the “right” wine? You’re not alone. For many of us, ordering wine in a restaurant can come with a lot of pressure - regardless of how familiar you are with wine. However, we believe you don’t have to be an expert to order an amazing wine and impress your dinner companions. In fact, there’s a fairly standard procedure for picking wine at a restaurant. 

Here are some of our tips on nailing the wine selection process, every time. 

Do Your Research

One of the easiest things you can do is do your research. Many restaurants today post their menus online so you can browse through to get an idea of what you’d like to order. Keep in mind though, that not all menus are updated meaning the wine may not be available or there might be new wines on the menu in the restaurant. If none of the wines are familiar to you, you can familiarize yourself with wine regions and what varieties they are known for. For instance, if you want a Shiraz then look to Australia, Germany for off-dry whites, Italy for light red wines, France for aged reds, Portugal or Alsace for dry white, and South America for Malbec. 

Go For the Uncommon

In other words, avoid the big names. These big brand names are often designed to appeal to the widest possible audience so more often than not, they won’t be anything memorable. Instead, look to unique brands and varieties for something truly special. Some of the best value wines on a wine list will often be those that are just left of center. For example, if you love Cabernet Sauvignon, look for a Cabernet Franc, if you love Sauvignon Blanc, look for a Chenin Blanc. 

Likewise, look for newcomers in the wine world or those brands that not everyone has heard of. These will most likely be on the wine list because someone fell in love with the wine, rather than having to tick off a checkbox. In short, you can rest assured that these unique wines will be on the list because they are worth their weight in terms of quality. 

In relation to going for the unique, is going for the minutiae. This means looking out for wines that list the specific areas they’re from. Of course, not all wine lists include this information as most simply say what country it’s from. However, don’t be afraid to ask to see a bottle or do a quick search. In general, the more specific the region that is labelled on the bottle, the more quality control it has undergone before being released to the public. 

Ask for Advice

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You shouldn’t feel like you’re expected to know everything about every wine on a wine list. So if you’re feeling stuck, ask those you’re eating with if they have something particular in mind. If you’re lucky enough to be in a restaurant with an in-house sommelier, take the opportunity to ask for their recommendations. Feel free to let them know your preferences in wine, or what you ordered, or your budget so they can suggest the right wines that you’ll love. 

How Much to Spend

This will depend on your own budget and what you’re willing to spend on a bottle of wine and it doesn’t matter whether this is P1,000 or P10,000. The important thing is to not fall for the trap that the more expensive a bottle is, the better its quality. In fact, studies have shown that in blind tastings many people can’t tell the difference between more affordable and expensive wines

Likewise, be aware of the anchoring effect: a cognitive bias in which our initial observations stay with us and impact our perceptions and decisions. An example is when consumers are influenced by the first price they see when making a purchase. For instance, if you see most of the wines are priced above P5,000 you might stray from your P1,000 budget and go for the P3,000 bottle of wine thinking it's a fair middle ground. 

You should also be aware of markups. Restaurants and wine bars often mark up their wines drastically. Some even to the extent that when you buy per glass, the price you pay is generally the total wholesale price for the bottle. Sometimes the markups can be drastic, however, it’s important to remember that this is how many restaurants make their profits. Nevertheless, it’s good to be aware that markups exist. 

Decide Based on Your Food

We’ve talked about how to pair wine with food before, but it’s good to recap some of the basics. After all, if you know what you’re going to order for your meal, it will help you narrow down the wines you should choose. 

If you want to drink something during your appetizers, go for something light-bodied as most appetizers will be on the lighter side. You could even start with a sparkling wine. In fact, if the wine list is so extensive that it’s taking you a while to choose your wine, order some sparkling first so there’s something to drink while you make your final decision. 

When it comes to pairing your wine to your food, be conscious of how powerfully-flavored your food will be. If it’s a light dish with delicate flavors, opt for a good white wine or a light-bodied red. If it’s a heavily spiced dish, look for something deep and full-bodied. If your dish is going to be spicy, maybe look at a Riesling or even a Rose. In fact a Riesling, and even a Sauvignon Blanc, will be the most versatile match to any vegetable, chicken, or fish dish. For a red option, the most versatile option is a Pinot Noir. 

By the Glass or the Bottle?

We’ve already alluded to whether you should opt for the glass or purchase the whole bottle, but the answer is by the bottle. If you’re a group of 4 or more, or you expect to drink more than 3 glasses, it’s best to opt for the whole bottle as it will more often than not, save you money and give you a better quality wine. However, going by the glass is a good option if your group have all ordered very different dishes or if your individual courses have varying flavors. 

When it comes to the house wine, although this is often the cheapest, the markup is also often one of the highest. Unless you’re eating in a place where they make their own wine or are close to a popular wine region, the house wine will typically be more about profit than quality. That being said, if you recognize the house wine as something you love then of course order it for yourself. 

Surviving the Wine Presentation 

Once you’ve made the decision on your wine and you’ve opted to order a full bottle, the next step is the wine’s presentation. This is the time to decide whether or not the wine has a fault, not if you like it or not. The server will often bring the bottle and present it to you, this is when you can double check that it is in fact the bottle you ordered. If it isn't, don't fret, simply let the server know as it’ll often be an honest mistake and they’ll simply go grab the correct bottle. Once you have the right bottle, the server will then open it for you. If it has a cork, they’ll often present the cork to you and you can visually inspect if the cork looks damaged or not. 

Next, your server will pour you a small glass. This is your opportunity to determine if the wine is drinkable. Take in its aromas. If it smells fruity or there are other pleasing aromas, that’s a good sign. On the other hand, if you smell something vinegary, moldy, or musty that’s a red flag. Regardless of the smell, take a sip to confirm your impressions. If it tastes like it's corked or vinegary, it’s likely the wine has gone bad. You can have someone else taste it to confirm it but let your server know and they’ll take it back and replace it with another bottle. This is no fault of the restaurant, but as wine is a living thing, it is always changing and will reach a point where it is no longer drinkable. 

Use these tips the next time you’re ordering wine at a restaurant to discover new wines that you’ll love. But remember the golden rule, when in doubt, pick a style of wine that you and your companions enjoy drinking.