Six Quick and Easy Tips for Navigating Restaurant Wine Lists Like a Pro

A woman looking at the wine list in the restaurant Saint Amour in Quebec City, CanadaAlamy

Have you ever been handed a wine list at a restaurant and been completely overwhelmed?

Everyone has been there at some point, and it can be daunting. You’re under pressure to order a tasty wine that everyone will enjoy, but don’t want to pick something that will require a second mortgage.

Here are a handful of quick strategies to help navigate those intimidating and extravagant lists with a bit more ease.

Open with bubbles.

When you sit down and want to really go through the wine list, stall for time by ordering a bottle of bubbles.

Champagne is always a top choice, but there are so many excellent sparkling options typically available at a more accessible price point, particularly Prosecco and Cava. Not only is it a festive way to start any meal, but it allows for some breathing room to properly peruse the wine list and help open up everyone’s appetite.

Want to try something a little further out there? See if the restaurant has a pétillant naturel, or pét-nat, a rustic style of sparkling wine appearing increasingly on lists across the U.S.

Cropped shot of a group of friends hanging out and having champagne
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There are no hard and fast rules on quality vs. price.

You’ll hear a lot of conflicting advice on what to order based on price. Some will tell you to never order the cheapest bottle on the list. Others say that the second-cheapest bottle of wine is what the restaurant wants to unload on unsuspecting customers too self-conscious to order the lowest-price wine.

The truth is, there is no quick cheat that’ll tell you which wine you should buy based on price. Sometimes, the cheapest wine is the owner’s favorite, and the restaurant gets a case discount. Or the most expensive wine is something the restaurant barely breaks even on, but keeps it around for prestige and to add to the overall experience.

What you can be sure of is that most beverage directors strive to make all the wines on their list ones that they enjoyed tasting, and deal with the price points later.

Take the road less traveled. 

 If you go into a steakhouse and look to a bottle of Napa Cab or Bordeaux, you are almost guaranteed to pay top dollar for a wine that usually has the highest markup in the joint. The same goes for a Barolo or Amarone at a five-star Italian restaurant. That’s because these are the types of bottles most diners associate with these sorts of restaurants.

However, if you look for Merlot or Zinfandel from Sonoma at that same steakhouse, you’ll likely find an outstanding wine with less sticker shock. A Valpolicella Superiore can offer the same value at your favorite Italian spot and would be a welcome alternative to Amarone. Restaurants tend to mark these bottles up less to entice diners to try their favorite “value wines.”

Double the retail price of the wine for comparison.

Most restaurants will charge a flat percentage markup on wine based on its cost. But some may play around with the prices where they think they can maximize profit.

If you are considering a wine you’re familiar with, a good rule of thumb is to double what you would pay in a local wine shop. That will give you a fair market assessment of restaurant pricing, though you should expect a bit more at higher-end restaurants.

If a wine you like is being offered at less than double its retail price, you’ve found a deal.

Group of coworkers having a dinner after job
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Ask questions.

It’s amazing how many bargains can be found just by striking up a conversation with the sommelier or your server. Tell them what wines you’ve enjoyed in the past and why. If they ask followup questions, they’re trying to get a sense of your taste, not quiz you.

Besides, getting to know your wine professional has all sorts of side benefits. Maybe the restaurant has one bottle left of an older vintage that they need to clear out to make room for a new wine. Or perhaps there are a few wines not even on the list that just arrived. Maybe a sales rep dropped off some sample bottles about which the sommelier would like opinions.

Having a conversation with the staff about your wine preferences and budget could lead to a stellar value selection.

Wine preference outweighs wine pairing.

It’s easy to get hung up on trying to find the perfect pairing, and wine culture places such emphasis on the “right” things to eat and drink together. But if you know that you don’t like Rhône wines and your server or sommelier recommends a Gigondas as the best pairing for your dish, chances are that you’ll be disappointed.

Be sure to order a wine that you know you will enjoy regardless of the food. After all, you’re the one paying the bill, right?

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