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How to Order Wine Like a Sommelier

April 13, 2022

“Hello, my name is Ron, and I’m a recovering sommelier.”

For many people, being handed the wine list in a fancy restaurant is a bit like being asked to go a couple of rounds with Mike Tyson. You haven’t a clue how to do it, and you know it’s going to hurt. I do have one suggestion. Duck! Which goes great with Cabernet.

I spent, some would say wasted (an apt adjective for a sommelier), nearly twenty years as a sommelier. I oversaw a wine list that sported more than five hundred wines. I have yet to meet a wine list that truly intimidated me, but I have met many that completely befuddled me. Far too often, especially with a young or newly minted sommelier, the wine list is about him/her and not about the customer or making money for the restaurant. So, you not only see wines you haven’t heard of, you see them in a language that seems to be computer-generated. How about a nice bottle of 2020 Getariako Txakolina? Actually, I think that’s the password for my PayPal account.

What’s a person to do when the wine list reads like the Cyrillic translation of “Ulysses?” Order wine like a sommelier. If you’re in a nice restaurant with a good wine program the truth is you should be able to select any wine from the list and it will be terrific. There’s no reason, therefore, not to select by price. What’s the occasion, and how much do you want to spend? Truthfully, most of the sommeliers I know are proudest of the wines that are the least expensive on their wine lists. Anyone can assemble a wine list of great wines where the average price is $150. But discovering an exceptional wine that you can sell for, say, $40, takes an astute palate and perseverance, not to mention a sense of humor.

There’s also an old bit of restaurant wisdom that states that you should order the second least expensive wine on the wine list. It’s amazing how many people do just that. Yet I would always flip flop wine prices to take advantage of people who subscribed to that bit of folklore. Every time I reprinted my wine list, which was often, I would juggle prices at the lower tier to encourage sales of a wine that wasn’t moving. Always worked.

When I dine at a restaurant for the first time, I look at the wine list before I look at the men – which sort of seems like putting your shoes on before your pants, but there’s a reason. If the restaurant has a glorious wine list, I can then select whatever food I want from the menu and know I’ll find a suitable wine to complement it. If there’s only one wine I really want to drink, then I’ll order that wine and order a dish that will accompany it fittingly.

Whatever the case, there’s no reason to feel uneasy around an eclectic wine list. Trust the sommelier, if there is one, or take the easy and wise way out and order Rodney Strong or Davis Bynum or ROWEN. All the kids are doing it.

Ron Washam, Sommelier/Wine Educator

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