I was having dinner at the bar of a high-end Italian restaurant in Washington when the bartender handed me a hefty wine list. Feeling overwhelmed, I asked him to choose something for me.
“I like bold reds,” I told him.
“Pour me two glasses of wine at $25 apiece without informing me of the exorbitant price,” is what he must have heard.
Not all servers are out to “upsell,” of course, but my costly blunder could have been avoided had I not been afraid to engage in a deeper conversation about my wine preferences.
Sommeliers say that not asking the right — or any — questions is often the biggest mistake diners make when ordering wine.
“Choosing a wine is not a multiple-choice exam with right and wrong answers,” says Bianca Bosker, a certified sommelier and the author of “Cork Dork,” a book about her intensive 18-month immersion in the world of wine. “People are embarrassed to ask questions about wine because they feel like they should know more about it than they do.”
Determined not to make a similar mistake again, I sought the advice of pros on the do’s and don’ts of ordering wine.
Don’t: Be shy about your budget
“A price range is always one of the most helpful things to know as a sommelier, because it narrows down the options,” says Eric DiNardo, sommelier and beverage director for Schlow Restaurant Group, which owns, among others, Alta Strada, the Riggsby and Tico.
If you’re embarrassed to admit your price range in front of your companions, Bosker recommends pointing to a bottle on the menu: “A good sommelier will pick up on your hint and won’t suggest a $150 bottle if you’re indicating something that’s $50.”
For those on a budget, Justin Logan, co-owner of Ruta Del Vino in Petworth, also recommends warming up your palate with a pricier varietal and switching to something less expensive later, such as what's referenced in the biblical account of the wedding feast at Cana.
Do: Spring for a bottle
If you and a dining companion are on the same page in terms of flavor, it makes economic sense to order a bottle, which typically yields about 4 to 6 glasses. "I try to press on people, value-wise, the wines we offer by the bottle are always the better price," says Logan of his restaurant.
Worried about not being able to drink it all? Familiarize yourself with local liquor regulations. In the District, Maryland and Virginia, for example, you can take home any wine you haven’t finished as long as it’s in a container that can’t be resealed.
Do: Ask for a sample before committing to a glass
Most restaurants are happy to oblige when you ask to sample a wine before committing to a glass. If it’s not to your taste, you should feel no pressure to order it.
On the other hand, if you’ve ordered a full bottle, your options are more limited.
“When you’re given a taste after ordering a bottle of wine, you are not testing if you like it, you’re seeing if it’s fundamentally flawed,” Bosker says. A bad or “corked” bottle will have hints of mustiness or wet rag, according to local wine consultant Tom Madrecki.
To be safe, talk to your server about how the wine you have in mind tastes before ordering a bottle. For a deeper conversation, you could ask whether the restaurant has a sommelier.
You’ll have little recourse once the bottle has been popped. But don’t be afraid to send back a bottle of wine if you really don’t like it. Good restaurants want you to have a pleasant experience, and they might be willing to take it off the check and perhaps offer it by the glass to another table.
Don’t: Fall for the “gimme” wines
Most restaurants have what sommeliers refer to as “gimme” wines, Bosker says, or wines that are so familiar and popular that diners order them on autopilot — think New Zealand sauvignon blanc or a California cabernet sauvignon.
“If you order a gimme wine, you’re going to pay a gimme tax,” Bosker says. “They’re not a great value because restaurants know they will sell easily. Instead go with the wine from the grape you’ve never heard of from the region you can’t pronounce. It might not be the cheapest of your options, but it will be a better value.”
Do: Take note of what’s missing from the wine list
You can count on most restaurants to offer the usual suspects, such as the aforementioned “gimmes.” If the standards are nowhere to be found, there’s probably a reason.
“Some places have a point of view with their wine list,” Bosker says. “They’re leaving off some of these more obvious wines because they pride themselves on doing things differently.”
And if something isn’t on the list, don’t ask for it. “People look at my list and are like, ‘Do you have a chardonnay?’ And I’m like, ‘No. That’s why it’s not on the list,’ ” says Carlie Steiner, co-founder and beverage director of Himitsu in Petworth.
If you’d prefer to stick to what you know, tell your server what you normally drink, and they can recommend something in that ballpark.
Don’t: Balk at prices
Often, the price you pay for a glass of wine is about the same as what the restaurant paid for the whole bottle. “A lot of people are like, ‘This is such a big markup, I could buy this at a wine shop for less,’ ” Bosker says. “But keep in mind you’re not just paying for the 750 milliliters of fermented grape juice in the bottle. You’re paying for the staff wages, for the insurance, the cost of laundering your napkin, the entire experience.”
Alcohol sales are what help keep restaurants in business, and by bellying up to the table, customers consent to a higher price than they’d find at a wine store. “Liquids keep restaurants liquid,” Bosker says. “You’re helping the restaurant survive.”
Do: Tip appropriately and be patient
When ordering wine at the bar, the $1 per-drink tip suggestion doesn’t always apply. “Tipping depends on what kind of establishment you’re at,” says Kate Chrisman, the wine director and assistant manager at Vinoteca, on the U Street corridor. “If you’re sitting and eating and having a meal, I would say use the 20 percent structure” that uses the total bill as its basis.
When ordering wine for the table, exercise patience. Although it’s not being mixed from scratch like a cocktail, it still takes time to prepare.
“Wine service on the floor is a little different than at the bar. Some people will order a bottle and expect it right away” says Nadine Brown, wine director for Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill.
But there are still logistics involved, she says, including ringing in the order, retrieving the wine, double-checking the vintage and temperature, and processing other diners’ orders.
“Storage is also often a huge problem in restaurants,” Brown says. “I used to work in a restaurant that kept the reds in one location, the whites in another and the champagnes downstairs in the basement.”
Don’t: Wear strong perfume if you’re planning to drink wine
A wine’s aroma is tied closely to its taste, which is part of the reason wine pros will swirl their glass and take a big sniff before taking a sip. That’s why it’s best to sample wine in unadulterated air.
“Don’t overperfume yourself,” says Hugo Lefevre, manager of Eno Wine Bar in Georgetown. “The scent of the perfume or cologne will detract from the aromas of the wine and affect your taste buds.”
Do: Download these wine apps
Introverts and antisocials rejoice: There are several apps that can help you choose a wine if you’d prefer to keep to yourself. Stacey Khoury-Diaz, who plans to open Dio wine bar on H Street NE this year, recommends Wine Ring, which makes recommendations based on previous bottles you’ve liked. Vivino, which lists ratings and suggested retail prices for wines, is also worth a download, especially if you want to make sure you’re getting a good deal.
But don’t haggle if you see a big price discrepancy — prices at restaurants are fixed. So only use these apps as a starting point.
Correction: A previous version of this article contained multiple errors. Justin Logan, co-owner of Ruta del Vino, was quoted as saying, “Wines by the bottle are always the better price,” as if he was talking in general about wine prices. He actually said of his own restaurant, “I try to press on people, value-wise, the wines we offer by the bottle are always the better price.” The article also misattributed to Logan a statement that a bottle of wine yields five glasses. In fact, servings per bottle vary, depending upon the amount poured for each glass. In addition, the article gave an incomplete explanation for a reference Logan made to the biblical story of the wedding at Cana, in which Jesus turns water into wine. Logan recommended that those on a budget start with a pricier varietal and switch to something less expensive later, saying, “They even did that in the Bible.” Such a switch does not occur during the wedding at Cana; rather he was referring to a remark made by a steward at the wedding feast, who says: “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.”
A no-frills glossary for ordering wine
Blend: A wine made with a combination of grape varietals.
Body: The overall feel of a wine in your mouth. A “light-bodied” wine is more delicate than a heavy, “full-bodied” one.
Corked: This term is used to describe a bottle of wine that has come into contact with fungi in the cork. Signs that your wine has been “corked” include a wet-newspaper smell.
Dry: Not sweet.
Tannin: A naturally occurring element, strong in red wine, that gives it texture and creates a drying effect on the tongue.
Varietal: A type of grape used to make wine, or a wine made from a single type of grape.
Sommelier: A member of the waitstaff who is trained in wine and provides guidance on the selections.
What wine should you order?
Not sure what glass of wine to order? We chatted with Hugo Lefevre of Eno in Georgetown to compile this simple quiz to help you determine which varietal might be your best bet.
Our methodology: If you take your coffee with lots of sugar, chances are you won’t be turned off by a sweeter wine. And if you only drink lagers, you probably won’t be into a full-bodied, in-your-face cabernet.
Once you’re done, remember to still chat with your server before ordering: Differences arise among varietals, and the way a wine tastes can vary significantly year to year depending on growing conditions.