How should a diner work with a sommelier or wine captain?

First, feel totally comfortable asking for help. Servers sometimes know a great deal about wine, but, if you want guidance from the restaurant's expert, why not ask? That's what they're there for. And even the most sophisticated wine drinkers can get useful guidance.

The sommelier or wine steward who comes to your table will probably ask if he or she can help and will find out what you're eating. If you don't volunteer the information, they'll find a way to ask what you're comfortable spending. You can answer in a dollar range, or, if that makes you self-conscious, many wine lists identify wines with a number that you can refer to, as in "I'd like something in the range of Number 26." Or you can point to the wine -- many people do.

You'll probably also be asked what you like, as in red or white, light or robust, or the names of wines you like, as in Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, American or French. (That last option could be referred to as New World, i.e., not European, or Old World, i.e., European).

At all times, be as specific as you can in explaining your wishes. Feel free to ask questions. These people are there to make your dinner more enjoyable -- they aren't there to judge you or to get you to spend more money than you want to.

"We want to give people perceived value," says Ralph Rosenberg, the wine director at Zola and Red Sage restaurants in downtown Washington. "Anyone can pick out an $81 Margaux, but not everyone can find a good wine that's brand-new, no one's heard about and costs $24 a botttle. If you want to be cool, you give customers a really cheap wine that blows them away, and then they are yours forever."

-- Judith Weinraub