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How to read a restaurant wine list like a wine pro

Picking wine off a wine list can be very very intimidating, so this post shares a few tips on how professionals often do it.

As a winemaker, people constantly expect me to pick wine when I’m out at a bar or restaurant. This is problematic, because I have not tasted every wine on earth and can easily make the wrong decision. And the stakes are high, because if I pick a bad bottle, it looks like I don’t know my job.

So I had to learn some tricks. Some of them are very simple (eg ask your waiter for advice), and others are very dark secrets which I’m almost afraid to reveal. But here I go anyway…

If you only remember one thing:

edouard manet the reader painting of a man with a large book saying he'll have the second cheapest wine
“The Reader” by Edouard Manet

Ask your waiter for advice. If the waiter/sommelier/bar manager is any good, they can point you to exactly what you want. You can help them by telling them if you’re adventurous or want something you’re familiar with.

And if you know what you like, throw a couple of brand names at them. A good waiter isn’t going to judge you, but use that information to help you find the best wine for you.

If the waiter/somm/bar manager seems like they don’t know what they’re talking about, maybe don’t go for wine. When you eat out with winemakers, you see us drink a lot of beer. That’s because beer is delicious too, and it’s really dependable even in restaurants and bars with mediocre wine lists.

Sidenote: if you discover your waiter has never tried the wine you’ve bought, you can earn some real brownie points by offering them a sip. They can bring over a glass and pour themselves a tiny pour. They’ll be super-appreciative and you might get perks down the road for being a nice person.

If you only remember two things:

The second cheapest wine on the list is often the highest margin wine on the list. This is restaurant 101.

It’s not a bad choice as it’s likely a popular wine, but it’s usually been hand-picked because the owner knows it appeals to a wide audience and can fetch a slightly higher margin than the other wines on the list without raising any eyebrows.

A smart manager can get a lot of incremental profit just by padding an extra 50 cents of margin onto the second cheapest wine because it’s such a high-volume choice.

Now for the detailed advice:

Here’s what I’m going to go over… just in case you have a specific question or wonder how long I can prattle on about such a simple subject (I’m an excellent prattler.)

If this post is too long, my advice boils down to: Figure out what makes this wine list different than every other wine list, and then make some smart decisions based on that.

  1. Actually look for wines you’ve never heard of
  2. Ask questions!
  3. By the glass, is it ever a good idea?
  4. Half bottles, carafes, & micro-pours?
  5. How to deal with wine lists that are more like wine books?
  6. Pocket lists – is that a thing?
  7. Don’t forget about BYO

So….

What makes this wine list different than every other wine list?

This is an overriding guideline that will help us figure out what the wine list is supposed to do. Here are some common objectives for a restaurant wine list:

  • Get the most money out of your pocket possible
  • Make the food taste great
  • Draw people to the restaurant
  • Fit the restaurant’s theme
  • And very commonly, wine lists got very little attention at all

Most restauranteurs are juggling a bunch of these in mind at once, but you can definitely glean some insight by looking at the list intelligently and looking for outliers.

Look for wines you haven’t heard of

This was the #1 piece of advice Jancis Robinson recently gave for navigating a wine list.

Most restaurants will try to have a wine list with familiar names that diners expect to find. A French restaurant will probably have some Bordeaux and some Burgundy wines you recognize.

But if that restaurant decides to stick a weird non-appellation Chenin Blanc from the Loire, there’s a good chance it’s because somebody tasted it and loved it so much that they wanted to put it on the wine list. They knew this would be a tougher sell than a familiar wine, but they decided to carry it anyway!

So find a weird wine on the list. This is the wine you don’t think many people have heard of. In a restaurant with a common list, you need to cross off the usual suspects (wines you might find at chain restaurants and grocery store aisles).

In nicer places, you can assume that any wine with an AVA, AOC, AOP, DOCG, or series of letters near by it was chosen because of those letters.

Single varieties you’ve heard of (Merlot, Cab, Pinot, Chard, Sauvignon Blanc, etc) were also probably chosen for their recognizable grape.

Lastly, if it’s the kind of organic locavore restaurant or tourist attraction where people would commonly ask for a local wine, then you might want to eliminate the local wines too (more on this in the section about regional specialty).

And so you’re left with some weird wines. And you can ask your waiter about them.

Ask your waiter about stuff you don’t know

I’m repeating this advice because it’s important.

People get a little intimidated about asking questions about wine. But it’s important not to be shy.

Think about how you behave with the food menu. If you’ve ever tasted chicken, you don’t ask the waiter what chicken tastes like. But if you see a word on the menu that you’ve never seen in your adult life, you have the confidence to say “What is Branzino?” and the waiter won’t ridicule you for not knowing that’s what the chef decided to use because European seabass sounded too pedestrian.

Similarly, it’s okay to let somebody know you’ve never heard of Picpoul de Pinet, Blaufränkisch or Öküzgözü. (Yes, those are all real and I’ve actually ordered them.) And if a waiter ever thinks less of you for asking, they should be ashamed of themselves and you should not lose your confidence because of one poorly trained meanie.

If you can’t pronounce the thing you want to ask about, it’s also okay to admit that and point. I’ve met very very few waiters who know how to pronounce Öküzgözü anyway.

Check the pricing

Alright, finding outliers is a good first step, but now you have to check the value of the outliers. Usually, these wines should be less expensive because you’re not paying for their reputation, but you never know.

Outliers can be expensive because they’re rare or the restaurant thinks they need to be hand sold. In that case, you may be better off going for something less weird.

I’ve also seen lists where the most expensive wines offer the better deals. While traditional restaurant pricing is 3x wholesale, some restaurants are now adding a flat margin of $xx per bottle. This encourages customers to buy expensive wines because they get relatively good value for money at the higher end of the price range.

Oh, and sometimes outliers are listed as the cheapest wine and this can go one of two ways. It might be a great wine list where the cheapest wine is actually amazing value and the restaurant stands behind it. Or it might be the kind of place where they make sure they get a decent margin on the cheapest wine and expect customers who buy the cheapest not to care much about quality. If the cheapest wine is somehow highlighted (like it’s the house wine), that usually restores my confidence since they’re proud of the cheapest. Barring that, you can see how they price their food menu. Is the cheapest entree delicious-sounding, or does it seem like they’re just putting an item on the menu that will deliver them some margin with little concern for quality?

Do you ever buy by the glass?

Yes…sometimes it makes sense.

Traditional restaurant pricing is to charge the wholesale cost of the entire bottle for a single glass of wine, so a single glass tends to be a way worse deal than a whole bottle. So it usually makes sense to order a bottle (even if you plan on sticking the cork back in and bringing it home because you can’t finish it).

But if you’re not sure you’ll like the wine, getting a whole bottle of it might be a bit scary.

If restaurants offer a wine by the glass, they’ll often let you sample that wine before making up your mind (remember to tip generously if the waiter runs back and forth to let you sample the wine). If you love the wine, you can get a glass (or a whole bottle). If you didn’t love it, you dodged a bullet and can try a different wine.

Another thing is that sometimes I see a list where the cheap wines aren’t very interesting and the expensive wines look amazing. In that situation, I’d rather have a glass of amazing wine than a 2-3 glasses of a mediocre wine.

And finally, if everybody at the table orders different foods, it can be hard to pick a wine that will do justice to everybody’s meal. A couple wines by the glass might offer much-needed variety. My wife has a knack of picking a dish that needs the opposite wine to my food so I’ll share a bottle of whatever pairs well with hers and a glass of something that goes great with mine (see how I basically justified giving myself two wines!)

Half bottles, carafes and micro-pours…

Yes to these too. Carafes are usually house wines which can be good or bad (that subject is kind of worth its own post.)

But as a rule, the pricing varies a lot more on all these items so you just have to use your judgement and decide what you want. Micropours aren’t very thirst-quenching, but they’ll let you try a lot of different wines. Half-bottles might be more appropriate for 1-2 diners and might give you the freedom to try a couple wines instead of just one.

And generally, if these options exist on the wine list, it’s because the restaurant likes to use them. So you can ask for recommendations too.

How to deal with really long wine lists

The more a wine list looks like a wine book, the more intimidating the choice can be.

While the above advice works really well on a list of 8-30 wines, much more than that and you’re going to fall victim to choice paralysis.

So I try to turn the situation around a bit and start with a budget. Realistically, I know how many people at the table are drinking wine and what I am comfortable spending on a bottle (or what we’re all comfortable with if we’re splitting the bill). If you need a clue, think what people drink normally – are they usually the kind of person to cradle one $10 cocktail for a long time or down a couple domestic beers? Once you’ve got a good budget in mind, you can skim the list for things that come closest to the bottom of that budget (and I generally try to avoid the cheapest and second cheapest wine, but there are exceptions to that).

Now that you’ve shortened the list a bit, you might be able to fall back on the strategy of finding some outliers.

But if you still have loads of wines, maybe consider narrowing it down to red or white or a style or region. If you’re in wine country, look at local wines. If you’re in a French restaurant, maybe stick to the French wines.

Pocket lists, is that a thing?

I have heard legends of a pocket list or bin end list at a restaurant, but I don’t know if this is really a thing. The idea here is that when there’s just one or two bottles left of a wine, they’ll take it off the list before running out and the somm or waiter might offer that wine to you (at a discount sometimes) if you ask about it.

While I’ve seen wine lists be out of date, I’ve never heard anybody ask for a pocket list or bin end list so I think this might be regional or fanciful. If you’re curious, you can ask “Is this wine list up to date?” and the somm/waiter can volunteer information like new wines that haven’t been added to the list yet or bin ends that have been removed. But I’ve never pursued this and it sounds a bit weird to me.

Even if there were a pocket list, I don’t know that the wines would be better value or smarter choices.

Do any of our readers work in the industry and have feedback about pocket lists or closeout sheets? Please post and I’ll add your comments to this section.

Don’t forget about BYO

This is a big one. Some restaurants allow you to bring your own wine and pay a corkage fee. This policy varies wildly by restaurant and by state so you have to do some research. The corkage fee itself can be quite expensive at some restaurants and totally free at others.

Some restaurants waive the corkage fee if you buy a bottle of their wine before tucking into yours. Also, while their stated policy is a corkage fee, many restaurants will waive this for special customers or events so this is the kind of thing that you can call and ask a manager about ahead of time.

My wife and I wanted to open a gigantic bottle of bubbles to our wedding dinner (the kind Formula 1 drivers spray everywhere when they win) so we asked for special permission and the restaurant politely waived the corkage as a wedding gift.

Restaurants tend to respond rather poorly to you bringing wines in that they already sell. But if you want a giant bottle, there’s a good chance they don’t carry that so they’re more forgiving. Also, if you share some of your bottle with the waiter/somm, there is a very good chance corkage will get waived because you were a nice person.

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