©Leo Cullum – New Yorker Magazine

Recently I had a lengthy phone conversation with a friend who’s not in the wine industry. During our chat he happened to mention how difficult it was to get a good bottle of wine in a restaurant. My reaction was somewhere between “no way,” and “seriously?” I was surprised given that he dines out regularly and knows more than a bit about wine. After a few more questions, it quickly became apparent that his comfort level with wine in restaurants simply wasn’t there; that dealing with a sommelier or a huge list was a major challenge. 

He’s not alone. Dealing with what I call “wine ballet” or the “being handed the wine list in front of my friends/colleagues/future ex-girlfriend” is a source of major stress for practically anyone. I wouldn’t quite put it up there with the fear of public speaking, which according to some sources is even greater than the fear of death (a tough audience, no doubt). Being put on the spot with a wine list the size of the Gutenberg Bible can definitely cause personal anxiety. No surprise that my friend didn’t believe me when I told him it was no big deal. So, I gave him my own strategy on how to get a good bottle from any wine list. Then I promised him I’d share it with all my closest friends. Here it is.


There are some things you should know before you darken any restaurant’s door. These would include the following:

a. Know the style of wine you like to drink. Go into a restaurant armed with the knowledge that, “I like a red wine with soft tannins like Pinot Noir,” or “I really like big, oaky Cabernets that remind me of a monster truck pull.”

b. Also know what you don’t like, which is arguably more important than knowing what you do like. If you absolutely loathe oaky wines or break out in hives if the alcohol in a red wine is over 15%, be sure to share that information when appropriate.

c. Have a couple of examples of wines you’ve enjoyed in the past that can be used as points of reference. It will be useful to have some wines in mind that you’ve previously tasted that can be used in discussions with a server or a sommelier.

d. Price: know how much you want to spend on a bottle within $15-$20. Wine prices on restaurant lists can vary dramatically, but chances are you already have a good idea of how much your wine budget is on any given dining excursion. 

The Main Event

Now you’re ready to go. You’ve just entered the restaurant with the man/woman of your dreams. When the hostess races you both across the dining room, seats you next to the kitchen, and gives you one of those “adios amigo” smiles before racing off leaving the glassware on the table spinning, don’t panic. Keep breathing. Feel good. Feel confident. It’s going to be alright.

a. The wine list: as you pick up the wine list head to any section and check out the pricing. Spot the highest price you can find and the lowest price as well. Drag those to your mental trash bin and discard.

b. Find the average price: get a quick eyeball average of where most of the wines are priced. The average bottle price could be anywhere between $40 and $150 depending on the location and style of the restaurant. After all, there’s a huge difference between a corner bistro and The French Laundry in terms of the cost of operations, infrastructure, and the rest. You should know that restaurants do NOT make money by selling food alone, but only manage to survive and hopefully thrive by the selling alcoholic beverages. 

c. Find the sweet spot: set your sights on the 50-60% price range of the restaurant’s pricing scheme. That’s usually where the best values are and that, mein liebchen, is your sweet spot. 

d. Your server: when your server arrives and asks if you’d like wine with dinner, smile and say something like the following:

“You know, this is a really good list. I’d like to talk to the sommelier or the wine buyer if they’re available.”

e. If the sommelier or buyer is available, that’s great. Hopefully they will be available to chat in short order. Once they make an appearance at your table, be sure to relay the above pertinent information to them as in the following:

1)  “This is the style of wine I really like.”

2) “I really don’t like XX kind of wine.”

3) “Here are some wines I’ve enjoyed in the past. What do you have that’s similar?”

f. Pricing: give them a price range to work with as in, “I’d like to spend $50-$60 on a bottle,” or “please suggest a wine you really like for under $75.” Be specific about your price range–but also keep in mind that part of their job is to SELL. That means they will probably start in your price range and then suggest something a bit more expensive. Don’t be put off. If their suggestion makes sense in terms of your personal favorite wine style and it’s still within your budget, consider it. However, if their suggestion is hideously expensive (meaning they either didn’t listen to you or they’re clueless), respond politely with something like:

 “You know, that’s really not what I had in mind. Could you please make a recommendation in the XX price range?”  

Likewise, if their suggestion is completely obscure don’t hesitate to ask about the wine. Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl, anyone? Good questions to ask about any recommendation would include the sweetness/dryness level for any style of wine, or the amount of tannin and oak if it’s a red wine recommendation. Ultimately, ask yourself if their suggestion fits your favorite personal wine profile. If not, don’t hesitate to ask for something closer in style such as a wine with less tannin, oak, or cosmetic flaws.

7. Discourse: a bit of back and forth is always good. The magic combination of your likes, dislikes, and desired price range should be more than enough for practically anyone to help you get a delicious bottle.

Coda: Magic Questions

If in doubt, ask the following questions. You can always feel free to skip everything above and head straight to these.

“What are your favorite VALUES on the list?”

“Is there anything you’ve just gotten in that you really like and think is a must try?”

“Is there anything you’re pouring by the glass that you really like and think is a great value?”

If you’re speaking to the buyer/sommelier, chances are they will get dangerously excited at this point–or they should be checked for a pulse. This is the moment every sommelier/buyer dreams about, the moment when someone is asking their opinion about the coolest wines on the list that they have toiled countless hours to put together. What more could they want? Odds are they will blurt out the best/coolest/ greatest/most amazing wine within nano-seconds of the question leaving your mouth. They may even get all verklempt on you. This is how it should be. If the wine is being poured by the glass, by all means ask to taste it. Otherwise, if the price is right, give it a spin. And if you really like their recommendation, be sure to let her or him know it and even throw a bit of cash their way. It’s always greatly appreciated.