Blend: A wine made with a combination of grape varietals.
Body: The overall feel of a wine in your mouth. A “light-bodied” wine is more delicate than a heavy, “full-bodied” one.
Corked: This term is used to describe a bottle of wine that has come into contact with fungi in the cork. Signs that your wine has been “corked” include a wet-newspaper smell.
Dry: Not sweet.
Sommelier: A member of the wait staff who is trained in wine and provides guidance on making a selection.
Tannin: A naturally occurring element, strong in red wine, that gives it texture and creates a drying effect on the tongue.
Varietal: A type of grape used to make wine, or a wine made from a single type of grape.
I was having dinner at the bar of a high-end Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C., when the bartender handed me a hefty wine list. Feeling overwhelmed, I asked him to choose something for me.
“I like bold reds,” I told him.
“Pour me two glasses of wine at $25 apiece without informing me of the exorbitant price,” is what he must have heard.
Not all servers are out to upsell, of course, but my costly blunder could have been avoided had I not been afraid to engage in a deeper conversation about my wine preferences.
Sommeliers say that not asking the right – or any – questions is often the biggest mistake diners make when ordering wine.
“Choosing a wine is not a multiple-choice exam with right and wrong answers,” says Bianca Bosker, a certified sommelier and the author of “Cork Dork,” a book about her intensive 18-month immersion in the world of wine. “People are embarrassed to ask questions about wine because they feel like they should know more about it than they do.”
Determined not to make a similar mistake again, I sought the advice of pros on the do's and don'ts of ordering wine:
Don't: Be shy about budget
“A price range is always one of the most helpful things to know as a sommelier, because it narrows down the options,” says Eric DiNardo, sommelier and beverage director for Schlow Restaurant Group.
If you're embarrassed to admit your price range in front of your companions, Bosker recommends pointing to a bottle on the menu: “A good sommelier will pick up on your hint and won't suggest a $150 bottle if you're indicating something that's $50.”
For those on a budget, Justin Logan, co-owner of Ruta Del Vino in D.C., also recommends warming up your palate with a pricier varietal and switching to something less expensive later.
Do: Spring for a bottle
If you and a dining companion are on the same page in terms of flavor, it makes economic sense to order a bottle. “Wines by the bottle are always the better price,” says Logan, adding that the price of four glasses of wine often equals the cost of a bottle, which yields five glasses.
Worried about not being able to drink it all? Familiarize yourself with local liquor regulations. In the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, you can take home any wine you haven't finished as long as it's in a container that can't be resealed.
Do: Ask for a sample before committing to a glass
Most restaurants are happy to oblige when you ask to sample a wine before committing to a glass. If it's not to your taste, you should feel no pressure to order it.
On the other hand, if you've ordered a full bottle, your options are more limited.
“When you're given a taste after ordering a bottle of wine, you are not testing if you like it, you're seeing if it's fundamentally flawed,” Bosker says. A bad or “corked” bottle will have hints of mustiness or wet rag, according to local wine consultant Tom Madrecki.
To be safe, talk to your server about how the wine you have in mind tastes before ordering a bottle. For a deeper conversation, you could ask whether the restaurant has a sommelier.
You'll have little recourse once the bottle has been popped. But don't be afraid to send back a bottle of wine if you really don't like it. Good restaurants want you to have a pleasant experience, and they might be willing to take it off the check and perhaps offer it by the glass to another table.
Don't: Fall for the “gimme” wines
Most restaurants have what sommeliers refer to as “gimme” wines, Bosker says, or wines that are so familiar and popular that diners order them on autopilot – think New Zealand sauvignon blanc or a California cabernet sauvignon.
“If you order a gimme wine, you're going to pay a gimme tax,” Bosker says. “They're not a great value because restaurants know they will sell easily. Instead go with the wine from the grape you've never heard of from the region you can't pronounce. It might not be the cheapest of your options, but it will be a better value.”
Do: Take note of what's missing from the wine list
You can count on most restaurants to offer the usual suspects, such as the aforementioned “gimmes.” If the standards are nowhere to be found, there's probably a reason.
“Some places have a point of view with their wine list,” Bosker says. “They're leaving off some of these more obvious wines because they pride themselves on doing things differently.”
And if something isn't on the list, don't ask for it.
If you'd prefer to stick to what you know, tell your server what you normally drink, and they can recommend something in that ballpark.
Don't: Balk at prices
Often, the price you pay for a glass of wine is about the same as what the restaurant paid for the whole bottle. “A lot of people are like, 'This is such a big markup, I could buy this at a wine shop for less,'” Bosker says. “But keep in mind, you're not just paying for the 750 milliliters of fermented grape juice in the bottle. You're paying for the staff wages, for the insurance, the cost of laundering your napkin, the entire experience.”
Do: Tip appropriately and be patient
When ordering wine at the bar, the $1 per-drink tip suggestion doesn't always apply. “Tipping depends on what kind of establishment you're at,” says Kate Chrisman, the wine director and assistant manager at Vinoteca in Washington. “If you're sitting and eating and having a meal, I would say use the 20 percent structure” that uses the total bill as its basis.
When ordering wine for the table, exercise patience. Although it's not being mixed from scratch like a cocktail, it still takes time to prepare.
“Wine service on the floor is a little different than at the bar. Some people will order a bottle and expect it right away” says Nadine Brown, wine director for Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill.
But there are still logistics involved, she says, including ringing in the order, retrieving the wine, double-checking the vintage and temperature, and processing other diners' orders.
“Storage is also often a huge problem in restaurants,” Brown says. “I used to work in a restaurant that kept the reds in one location, the whites in another and the champagnes downstairs in the basement.”