Navigating the wine list at any restaurant can be a daunting, confidence-deflating chore, thanks to the mind-bending varieties of labels and regions. But there's no need to choose Chardonnay, that old standby, just because you're unsure what to order. With a few simple rules, even amateur glass-clinkers can negotiate just about any wine list, whether at a hoity-toity bistro or a greasy-spoon pitstop.
Avoid Wine List Traps
Restauranteurs bank on your insecurity when it comes to navigating a wine list. Most amateurs play it safe by choosing the second cheapest wine on the list. That's where many venues put their "high profit" bottles—the shabby stuff they want to get rid of. House wines are also never a good choice, as they're purchased for their price and not their value or taste. Avoid these money traps by figuring out the average bottle price on the list—then stay near the median price for the best bang for your buck.
Red = Heavy, White = Light
Everyone knows the old saw about pairing red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat. But what about seafood and pasta entrees? As a rule, order reds with heavier meals (braised chicken, roasted turkey) and whites with lighter fare (poached salmon, antipasto). Beware: Neither goes with spicy cuisine, since it ruins the taste. If your meal will have some kick—think chili rubs and curries—order a sweeter wine like a Riesling to tame the spiciness of the food.
Skip the Popular Names
Typically, the most well-known wines also get the biggest mark up (up to five times the market price!), since they're easily recognizable and popular choices. To get a better deal, try a Spanish Rioja instead of the standard Bordeaux, or an Italian prosecco in place of Champagne.
Have a Plan B
In unexpected situations, a white wine is the most flexible choice. A Sauvignon Blanc will go with everything from salads and pasta to fish, chicken, veal, and pork. If you're a sucker for red, a lighter one pairs better with more dishes than a heavy wine—a Pinot Noir nicely complements any pasta, chicken, or meat dish well.
Do Your Homework
To impress at a business meal, study up beforehand. Most restaurants have wine lists available online, or you can call ahead to find out their wine offerings. Then research these wines, so you can ask your dining partner for his or her preferences, and make good suggestions. Search for a Food and Wine Matching Engine like wineloverspage.com, which gives wine-pairing suggestions for everything from foie gras to popcorn.
Get a Recommendation
You're not alone in your confusion over the wine list. About 95 percent of diners rely on the restaurant staff for suggestions. Point to a wine in your price range, and ask a friendly waiter for suggestions. This is a subtle way of pointing out your budget and preferences, and solicit a suggestion based on the waiter's knowledge of the restaurant's offerings.