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Five Steps To Navigate a Restaurant Wine List

3 minute read
updated 19 December 2023

For many people, that moment in a restaurant when you’re handed the wine list is one fraught with danger. There are so many unknowns, unpronounceable words and rules (“never order the cheapest wine”, “never order the second cheapest wine”, not to mention the challenge of food and wine pairing.

Never fear … Team Wine Academy can definitely help out here!

Firstly – don’t fret about the food and wine pairing unless you’re seriously geeking out on food, wine or both. If you love drinking Shiraz with everything then that’s what you should do! This is especially the case when you’re in a restaurant and paying a hefty mark up* on the wine.

These days wine lists are becoming much more diverse (and expensive) but – in good news – they are very often online, so you can do a bit of research before you head to the venue.

Let’s assume you haven’t had the luxury of doing that although what follows you can do from the comfort of your sofa before venturing out too.

1. Breathe

Take your time. You don’t have to have digested the wine list and made a decision in 10 seconds flat. Very often, wines by the glass will be listed first – although many shorter wine lists will have the ‘by the glass’ price listed alongside the bottle price. If you know you’re only having a glass then you’ve got much less to take in.

2. Budget

Figure out your budget and remember that there is no shame in having a budget. This is going to help narrow down your choices but will also be invaluable if you end up asking questions of a sommelier or waiter.

3. Enjoy

What do you dining companions enjoy drinking? I have a friend who doesn’t like Riesling so, no matter what, I wouldn’t order that in a group. If tastes are very diverse, then wines by the glass are definitely your friend.

4. Familiar

Look for the things with which you’re familiar. That might be a producer, but also a region or a grape variety. If you’re not an adventurous drinker, then save the experimentation for the bottle shop.

5. Ask

ASK QUESTIONS! This tip should really be in first spot, but the reason that I’ve left it til last is that often, even the most experienced, wine-list savvy eye, will end up tossing up between two or three wines. This is where the restaurant staff come in – especially if the restaurant has a dedicated sommelier or other wine expert. Ask what wine (or wines) they’d recommend to go with the dishes you’re choosing. If you don’t see anything familiar (see #4) ask for a suggestion along the lines of “I normally love Clare Valley Riesling – what can you suggest as an alternative?”. And, if you are preparing to experiment then open with “I’m thinking of the Adelaide Hills Chardonnay but I always drink that – what can you suggest that I might enjoy that’s a bit different?”. And, if you’re very lucky and the wine is being poured by the glass, sometimes you’ll be offered a little taste before committing!

* That’s not a criticism of restaurant pricing … they have staff to pay, rent to pay, dishwashers to run and the list goes on.