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Home | Restaurants and Wine | Navigating the Wine List

Navigating the Wine List

If armed with a little bit of knowledge, reviewing a wine list and ordering wine at a restaurant can be a lot of fun.  Unfortunately for too many it is perceived as a stress filled, nerve racking moment when the entire place is grading the wine prowess of the host.  Hogwash, life is too short for intimidation – here's what you need to know.

Organization of the wine list

The length and complexity of wine lists varies tremendously depending on the restaurant, the type of food served, price points, and whether or not they feature fine wine.  A wine list can be as simple as a one page plasticized list, or in the case of Bern's Steak House in Tampa, Florida, 182 pages long offering 6,800 wines and backed up by the world's largest wine cellar with over a half a million bottles of wine.  Regardless of size, there are only a few basic ways in which a wine list can be organized, and virtually every wine list uses some of these categories in different order.

• Volume of serving – Wine by the glass, half carafe, carafe, bottle

• Wine Color / Style – The usual order is Sparkling wine, white wine, red wine, and desert wine

• Grape Variety – Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.

• Country of origin – France, Italy, Spain, may also be North American, South America or New World (everything but Europe basically) and Old World (Europe)

• Price – Usually within another category however frequently used at the end of the list for “premium” wines

These organizational categories can be arranged in different order but the most common is wine color, followed by grape variety, listed from least expensive to most expensive.


When considering whether to order wine by the glass or something larger there are a couple of things to keep in mind.  First, wine by the glass is probably the most expensive way to buy wine.  You can check this with a simple formula.  A typical bottle of wine will have roughly five 5-ounce servings.  Look at the price of a wine by the glass, multiply it by five, and compare it to the price of the bottle (some establishments may give a more generous 6 oz pour so multiply by four but you get the idea). Secondly, wine by the glass is usually the lowest quality wine offered by the restaurant (this does not however mean it is not an acceptable wine).  There are perfectly valid reasons to consider ordering by the glass – you might want to start with a white wine and move to a red wine with dinner, you only want a small quantity of wine, or you are feeling adventuresome and want to experiment with a new wine but don't want to commit to an entire bottle.

Wine Color

This is pretty self-explanatory and is probably the most common way to organize a wine list.  Red and white wines may be further subdivided based on style – light bodied, medium bodied or full bodied.  As you navigate down the list, light bodied wines are listed first, followed by medium and full.

Grape Variety

Well this works well most of the time. 

After all we have a general idea of what Chardonnay wine tastes like.  New World wine producers uniformly list the grape variety on the label (and therefore on the wine list) and if it's a blend, usually include the grape varieties and the percentage of each.  So what's the problem?  Well take a look at the two segments of a wine list at the right.  The top shows the Red section of a wine list, with wines from the New World (in this case California) neatly organized by vintage (year) the winery, the grape variety, the region, and lastly the price.  But move to the bottom part of the list and you are greeted with things like Volnay, Les Grands Poisots, Domaine Louis Boillot et Fils, and Gigondas, Les Racines, Domaine Les Pallieres.  What the heck? 

Well when it comes to wines from parts of the Old World, most notably France, custom dictates that the location, climate, soil conditions and topography,

collectively known as terroir are the most important elements of a wine and supersede the grape variety.  For this reason you will seldom find the grape variety on a bottle of French wine.  So where does this leave you?  Well there are about 470 Appellation Controllee's, as they are called in France, so you can find a list and memorize.  Or, like most, ask your waiter or sommelier, they are there to help.  Over time (and with help from you will learn the larger geographic areas of France and the most common grape varieties associated with each e.g. Burgundy red – Pinot Noir, white - Chardonnay.

Country of Origin

This type of organization can be helpful if you like a particular variety associated with a country, or a particular style of an International grape based on country.  Malbec is most common in Argentina, Carmenere from Chile, and Sangiovese from Italy.


Price is perhaps the most important item on the wine list and more establishments are starting to include it in the organization of their wine list.  Categories such as best choices for under $40 are being included helping identify value wines. In the absence of this type of listing, wines are in order of increasing price within a category.  It is also common to have a section at the end of a wine list called something like “Premium Wines” or “Reserves” or “Cellar Selections”.  Call it what you like, they are all code names for really expensive stuff.  If you know what you like and can afford it, go for it, otherwise best to navigate these waters very carefully.

Ordering wine

The process of ordering wine is an adventure.  You should generally know what you plan on ordering for food before ordering the wine – not a necessity but you probably don't want a big old vine Zinfandel with Flounder Almandine. The waiter will frequently bring a wine list and the menus together, but don't feel rushed to order your wine until after dinner selections are discussed.  Simply tell the waiter you plan to order wine but would like to review the menu first.

If you are the host and would like, ask your guests if they have a preference in wine.  Tread carefully however, as this can lead to confusion when everyone wants something different and it's hard to tactfully ignore someone's suggestion.

If there is a sommelier at the restaurant, make him or her your best friend for the evening.  Remember, they are trained to educate about wine, they are trained not to be snobs, and they are rewarded by making your dining experience enjoyable – take advantage of it!  The sommelier is the most knowledgeable person in the restaurant about the wine list, and can help you select a wine that fits your profile and budget.

When working with the sommelier or waiter, try and describe what you'd like in a wine – as little or as much as you can.  If you prefer whites to reds, that's a starting point.  Sweet wine or dry, is there a variety you prefer?  The more detail (e.g. I would like a recommendation on a fruit forward, light bodied, single variety white wine under $30) the better - but do not feel intimidated – a good sommelier will work with whatever parameters you provide.

If you do not want to blurt out your price range either because you are with business colleagues or on a first date, simply point to a wine and indicate, “in this range”.  But, be careful when the wine is brought to the table to make sure your finger wasn't closer to the $80 bottle than the $40 bottle.  While not a deciding factor, keep in mind your best value in wine selection is a more expensive bottle as it will generally be marked up less.

When it comes time to order the wine - if you are lucky you can pronounce the wine - or in many establishments there may be a bin number that you can cite.  But what if you are ordering the Puligny Montrachet and haven't studied French since the seventh grade?  Try and pronounce the name, even if you mangle it.  A good sommelier will know what you mean, and if you encourage him, simply ask the correct pronunciation – check your ego, its wine education and fun!

To read more about the wine ordering process and “accepting” read Wine Rite of Passage – aka the waiter brings you the wine.

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