Dear Caitlin, I’m taking out friends for a steak dinner next week, and I know they’ll want to drink wine. How can I choose a good bottle that goes with our food but won’t break the bank? And what if I don’t like it?—Steve, New York
Wine lists, especially the ones that more closely resemble textbooks than lists, can be daunting even to connoisseurs. It also doesn’t help that wine has a fancy reputation and mystique built around it when really, it’s just tasty fermented grape juice. Here are five tricks to help you navigate your restaurant’s offerings while staying within your budget.
Check the list before you go
Restaurants often post their wine lists online. If you pop on the website a few days before dinner, you can preview the offerings and do a little cyber-sleuthing about wines in your price range. Then search elsewhere for the name, vintage, and the word “review” or “rating” for any bottles that you think seem interesting, and you should come up with myriad resources detailing the tasting notes for the wine and how good each reviewer thinks it is.
Choose a price range for your bottle and don’t be afraid of it
Yes, you can get a spectacular bottle of wine for hundreds of dollars, but you can also get a really phenomenal one for a bargain basement price. Any good restaurant is going to take pride in its wine offerings, and should (emphasis on should) be paying just as much—if not more—attention to the lower-priced and by-the-glass wines as it does to their high-end bottles. The least-expensive bottle of wine on the menu is usually a restaurant’s most-ordered, so it’s typically chosen with great care.
While keeping your price range in mind, you’ll also want to make sure you’re choosing a bottle appropriate to the food you’re ordering. Most folks get a red with a steak, but if you’re planning to include a rich sauce like a bearnaise, you may want to consider going with a sparkling wine like champagne, cava or proseco—those bubbles will cut through the fattiness like the sexiest steak knife ever. Sparkling wine pairs well with pretty much everything, so if you’re looking at a variety of side dishes or are planning on having only one bottle but want to order a seafood dish to start, bubbles are your friend. If you’re interested in learning a little more about pairing, Food and Wine’s Ray Isle has a great, basic list of rules for beginners.
Be wise about your years
An easy trick for choosing a good wine is learning which vintages in which areas of the world were particularly wonderful. They usually coincide with warm, dry weather lasting for a year or two. If you’re going for steak, you’ll probably want a full-bodied red wine: cabernet sauvignon is a logical and popular pairing. Knowing that 2012 was a fabulous year for that varietal throughout coastal Northern California is an excellent fact to have in hand—it means you can pick pretty much any bottle from that region and year and end up with something delicious.
The sommelier is on your side
Still not sure what to order? Let the sommelier—the restaurant’s resident wine expert—know your price range, what you plan to eat and the type of wine you’re looking for (full-bodied red, crisp white, etc.) and let her suggest a few options. Generally, the somm wants to help you, and loves to show off her breadth of knowledge. If you’re specific about your price range, she’ll stick within it for sure (see #4 in a previous installment).
Keep in mind that there’s always the possibility that the wine wasn’t stored properly somewhere along the way, or the bottle has been open too long, and that’s when you’re actually going to appreciate that awkward pause where you’re tasting the small splash from the bottle and the waiter and your guests are all staring at you, waiting for your response. If the wine tastes or smells like soggy cardboard, that means it’s “corked” and you can and should definitely send it back. Likewise, if you’ve ordered by the glass, and the wine tastes and smells sharp like vinegar, that means the bottle may have been open too long; you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for a glass from a new bottle. As we’ve mentioned before, restaurant staff wants you to have a great experience, and that includes loving your wine.