Tips from the Cellar Expert: Choosing Wine When Dining at a Restaurant, Bar, or Any Commercial Establishment

Click on this photo to get a larger version of the image!For a lot of people, especially first timers, ordering wine when dining in a fancy restaurant can be a challenge of sorts. You see their glorious collection of vintage wines displayed in their commercial wine cellar, you browse through their impressive wine menu (without having any idea how to pronounce some words on the list), and you look at their intimidating sommelier waiting for your choice. Picking a wine to order can be an unnerving task for a newbie. Our experts can help you with a few basic tips!

Dining at a Fancy Restaurant: Choosing a Bottle from their Commercial Wine Cellar

Click on this photo to get a larger version of the image!Imagine yourself dining at Gary Danko, or at Acquerello, or any fine restaurant in San Francisco. The sommelier brings you a tablet computer for you to select from a list of over a thousand wines. There are so many choices, including wines that you’ve never heard of at prices you would never have imagined! The staff is patiently standing by the commercial cellar to retrieve the bottle you choose. The sommelier hovers at the table tolerantly waiting for your selection. You feel pressured to make a decision now, and so you point at your choice and show it to him. The question is: Will your choice be met with disdain or respect?

Chill! It’s just wine! Most of the time, it’s overthinking that kills us. So, just relax and remember that regardless what wine you choose, it will still be good wine — well, most probably. Any good-standing restaurant that is worth its salt will have only the best wines on their menu.

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Course Through the Wine Menu

Click on this photo to get a larger version of the image!A long list of around a hundred or even a thousand wines can be overwhelming, but don’t let this intimidate you. Generally, wine menus are formed with a structure. Most lists have arranged wines according to either grape variety or region. There are commercial establishments that break their menus into unique categories, such as “Big and Bold” or “Light and Lively.” These groupings are there to help make selecting wines easier for you. You won’t have to wonder if the option on the menu is a white or red wine. You’ll find it quicker to find the sweet and light vinos too!

Some people can find wine menus daunting because of the prices of the bottles on the list. Instead of being frightened of the dollar labels, think of it positively: A well-priced list could mean that the wines available are those of higher quality and better taste. This, however, does not mean that all expensive wines will appeal to your taste buds. There is an assortment of flavorful vintages that are sold at a very affordable rate. A bottle’s price tag should not be the determinant for whether you should try a wine or not. Go ahead and experiment with different wines with varying prices, so that you can find one that will appeal to your preference.

Mr. Sommelier, My Friend!

You don’t need to feel scared of the sommelier because they are there to help you. Most wine stewards know their menus like the back of their hands, and this means they can give you recommendations of their best sellers and top picks.

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It would definitely help to be honest. Tell the sommelier that you don’t know anything about the options on their list. Laying your cards on the table will not hurt you. In fact, if you give the sommelier information, such as your preferences in wine (e.g. sweet, light, etc.), he or she will be able to help make a more informed selection for you.

Click on this photo to get a larger version of the image!When the server brings the selected wine to your table, check the bottle label first to verify it’s the correct wine and the right vintage. Vintages change all the time, and restaurants that have a huge stock in their commercial wine cellar can have a difficult time to keep up with these changes. If the wrong vintage is served, keep in mind that you are not required to drink a vintage that you did not order. As a common practice, the sommelier will offer the cork for your approval. No, you should not sniff the cork. Contrary to what a lot of people believe, smelling the cork will not help you recognize the scent of the wine. Cork will still smell like cork!

Click on this photo to get a larger version of the image!Before filling your glass with the wine you selected, you have to assess first if the wine is of good quality. Swirl a small portion of the wine in your glass and smell it. If the scent is similar to the odor of bird droppings or old and wet cardboard, the wine most probably is flawed. Statistics reveal that approximately 3% to 5% of the wines in a commercial wine cellar are flawed. So, don’t feel bad about sending back a flawed bottle of wine. If, however, you are satisfied with the aroma of the wine, give the sommelier a nod of your approval. He will then fill your glasses with the wine.

Click on this photo to get a larger version of the image!Don’t forget to give at least a 15% tip on the wine if you encounter a sommelier who provides good service!

Explore Unknown Territory and Conquer!

Don’t be afraid to experiment.

You might want to try “flights”, which is an experience offered by many restaurants wherein you are served with an assortment of wines in small amounts. The different wines served are usually linked by region, varietal, or whim.

Click on this photo to get a larger version of the image!Some commercial establishments offer a “chef’s menu”, which is usually a special chef for that particular evening. For every dish served, the chef or the sommelier has a wine selected from their cellar to pair with the food. This food and wine pairing experience will give a better appreciation for both the dishes and the vinos.

It’s alright if you want to stay within the safe zone of drinking only well-known labels. But, exploring options and discovering a gem of a wine can be very rewarding!

 

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