How to Navigate a Lengthy Wine List at a Restaurant

December 28th, 2015 @ 12:00pm Megan Eileen McDonough Wine Knowledge 0

Ordering a glass of wine with dinner is easily the best part of the meal, but what happens when you’re utterly overwhelmed with options? This is actually fairly common, as a fair share of restaurants take great pride in their extensive wine lists, with some even specializing in a specific region. Whether you’re a wine expert or a complete novice, follow these tips for navigating a lengthy wine list and you’ll be set.


1. Do your research.

Wine lists can be intimidating, especially if they’re 30 pages long. While nobody expects you to be a wine wiz, it doesn’t hurt to do a little of research ahead of time. That way, when the waiter hands you the wine list, you’re ahead of the game. “Researching” can be as simple as defining your taste preferences. Do you prefer red or white? If white, do you like sweet flavors or sipping on bubbly? Or if you like reds, merlot is generally fruity and bold while zinfandel has hints of berries and pepper.

2. Ask your server.

There’s no shame in asking your waiter for recommendations, so don’t be shy about it. It’s their job to know the wine list extensively, which means that they can help guide you in the right direction. Servers are used to patrons asking to sample wine before they commit to a bottle. If you don’t like it, then choose another or ask to sample a few more varieties. Sometimes all it takes is telling your waiter what you’re looking for flavor-wise (e.g., a dry white or a full-bodied red).

3. Wine by the glass vs. by the bottle.

Usually you’ll get more bang for your buck when ordering an entire bottle rather than by the glass. Unless, of course, you only plan on drinking one glass at dinner. That said, splurging on an entire bottle can feel risky, especially if you don’t know if you’ll like what you get. Another option is to order a half bottle if one is available. When the bottle does arrive at your table, check for common flaws, like serving temperature and a large amount of sediment, immediately. If something bothers you, speak up.

4. Cheap vs. expensive.

Just because a wine is expensive doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best option on the menu. Cheaper wines can be full of flavor and body, too. If you’re dining in California, then California wines are likely to be less expensive than, say, a bottle from France. The opposite is true if ordering a French wine in France. A local wine will be more affordable than one from across the globe. If you’re really concerned about price, decide on a budget before reaching the restaurant.

5. Let your entree guide your choice.

If you’re feeling indecisive about what wine to order with dinner, consider choosing your entree first. Red wines typically pair best with filling meals, like a steak and potato dish. On the flipside, white wines bring out the flavors of lighter meals like salads and seafood. More specifically, chardonnay is a smart choice for fatty fish in a heavy sauce, while Champagne pairs well with salty appetizers. Choose a sauvignon blanc for salads with tart dressings and a malbec for sweet and spicy flavors.

6. Pick a theme.

A trip to Italy might not be in your plans this year, but you can still feel like you're in the heart of Tuscany by choosing a wine from the region. If you're totally lost, stick to wines from France or California, as it's hard to go wrong with varieties from either locale. Alternatively, choose a style and stick to it. What does this mean, exactly? Well, if you're looking for a light wine from France, pinot noir is a safe bet, while Bordeaux is heavier. For California wines, pinot noir is light and cabernet is heavy.

Bonus tip: Order from the last page of the menu.

One benefit of reading the wine menu from back to front is that you’re more likely to pick a wine that other customers overlook. It might sound counterintuitive, but it makes a lot of sense. If a wine menu is 20 pages long, you’ll probably zone out by page five, right? When it comes to red wines, choosing a bottle from the last page also means that it’s been on the shelf longer, and thus is more aged. If for no other reason, choosing a wine that few other people taste can be kind of thrilling, don’t you think?

Enjoy all the varietals that Peju, a family-owned winery in Napa Valley, California, has to offer. We invite you to explore our website for more information about experiencing our wines and events.

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