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Choosing wine at a restaurant

Imagine sitting at a fancy restaurant with important clients and your boss, and of all the people at the table, the waiter asks if you would like to choose a bottle of wine for dinner.

Panic sets in and your mind starts racing, trying to figure out how to pull off this task for which you were unwillingly volunteered. What do you know about choosing a wine? What if you choose the wrong wine? How do you keep from losing face in front of your boss?

So how exactly do you go about picking a wine at a restaurant? Let's take a look at the proper steps.

Choosing the wine

Your first glance at a wine menu might just have you blanking out completely. Just relax and take this step by step. You'll want to initially look at how the wine list is arranged. Some wine lists are separated into reds, whites, and dessert wines, while others are simply categorized by region, such as Italy and Napa Valley. Wine lists may include local wineries if available.

If a restaurant prides itself on their wines, they will more likely provide more information about the wine they have in their cellars. A wine list or wine menu offers basic information to help you make your decision. Recognizing how a wine list is organized should save you some distress and you should be feeling a bit more relaxed.

No matter how the wine list is organized, there should be basic points covered, such as an item number, name of the wine, vintage and sometimes a brief description of how the wine tastes.

Once you have a feel for how the wine list is arranged, you want to decide what type of wine your guests might like. The easiest way is to ask who prefers red wines and who prefers white wines. If there is no general consensus, you can always summon the restaurant's sommelier, or wine expert, to ask for a suggestion based on what each person might choose as an entree. Your food server may also be trained to offer suggestions as guests order about what wine pairs well with what food.

A good tip is to point to a general price range on the wine list when you ask the sommelier or server. That way, they are clued into the price point in which to recommend a wine. Most better restaurants are not going to serve a wine that's less than satisfactory, so when in doubt, don't be afraid to choose a 'house' Merlot, or 'house' Chardonnay when that seems like the safest move.

When the wine arrives

Once the server or sommelier returns to your table, they will present you with the bottle of wine. At this point, make sure the label matches what you have ordered and check for any signs of dirt or deterioration, even mold, on the label. Don't be distracted at this point by conversation. There have been instances of wine being poured that wasn't at all what was ordered just because the person did not take time to read the label when presented. If the wine is wrong or shows signs of not being kept properly, send it back for a different bottle. It's better to err on the side of caution than to serve your guests a bad bottle of wine.

If you approve of the wine presented, give your waiter the okay to uncork the wine. Once uncorked, the waiter will set the cork in front of you. Please do not smell the cork. You will not ascertain anything about the wine from the smell of the cork. It is the look of the cork that you need to observe. You may want to lift up the cork and examine it to see if it feels moist, meaning the wine was stored properly. If the cork is dry or crumbling, be sure to point this out to the server and request a new bottle. However, after a quick look at the cork, if it appears moist, you don't need to do anything with it other than just let it be.

The waiter will pour a small amount into your glass. At this point, you are not tasting the wine for flavor, but just to make sure it is still good. You will have to pay for the wine you ordered, as long as it has not turned bad. If you consider that the wine is good, give a nod and the server will pour wine for your guests, finishing with your glass.

If you think there is a problem with the wine, don't reject it out of hand. Instead, ask the sommelier to try it.

"Would you mind giving me your opinion of this wine?"

It may be good, corked, or have some other fault. Either way, the sommelier will let you know immediately and you can confirm...

"Yes, I thought so, but I wanted your expert opinion."

If what you thought was a fault is in fact a characteristic of the wine, you will still appear as a person of taste and knowledge.

Receiving a pat on the back

Congratulations, you have successfully ordered wine for a party using your keen senses and impeccable taste. Delight in the moment and rest assured that you have passed the test in choosing a wine for dinner. The next time you're at a fancy restaurant, show off your skills and offer to choose the wine with your newfound confidence!

How to correctly read a wine list

If you relax and don't stress out over it, a restaurant wine list can be easy, even fun, to read. Even the most complicated wine list can be easily read when you know how most are organized. The wine list or 'menu' is typically broken down into sections, and possibly by classifications of wine.

Wine list basics

Every wine list should include the name of each wine. This is not to be confused with the different varieties of wine. This is the name of the vineyard where the grapes are grown and the wine is bottled. This could be as simple as Coturri, or as elegant as Chateau Montelena. By displaying the name of the wine, you know exactly which winery is represented by each wine.

The vintage tells you which type of grape is used in making the wine. If the wine is a blend of several years, the menu may denote a NV, for non-vintage. Other notations are VV, which means the wine vintages change each year. Descriptions are usually only present if there are fewer wines on the menu, but you may find a couple descriptors after the variety of wine even on longer wine lists.

The wines may have a bin number, or item number, which refers to the location of the bottle of wine in the cellar. This information is more for the waiter than for you, but it does look very fancy, indeed, conjuring up images of a big, dark wine cellar full of classic vintage wines.

Standard categorization

A typical categorization of wines on a wine list is by type; Champagne, sparkling wine, white wines, red wines, and dessert wines. Sometimes the reds and whites are divided between sweet and dry, but this isn't always the case.

Further subdivisions could be by country or region, especially as applied to red and white wines. You may see, for instance, classifications for Italy, Germany, France, California, New Zealand, Washington State, or Oregon State.

Progressive lists

While every wine list is categorized in some form, there are modern, wine-conscious restaurants which display their wines with more of a neo-style list. This type of wine list may have wines within a category additionally listed in order of specific characteristics of the wine, generally from lightest to boldest.

Categories of wines by variety or region may be excluded entirely by a restaurant in favor of a list developed solely by taste and characteristics. You will see categories with descriptors suggesting a wine is "Fresh and Crisp" or "Full-bodied and Serious."

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