7 rules for confidently ordering wine at a restaurant


When traveling, drinking wine with meals, especially across the U.S. and Europe, is part of the experience. After a lifetime of drinking wine and then watching friends fumble and stress with ordering wine from restaurant menus, I have some foolproof suggestions.

These rules don’t come haphazardly and can be used for any occasion when you face a daunting wine list and are forced to order for a group.

Plus, I am assuming that, like me, you are not used to forking over $100 per bottle at a restaurant, or anytime. Don’t let social conventions get in your way when ordering. You’ll be amazed at how many of your dining mates will be amazed at your knowledge of choosing a wonderful and affordable bottle for the meal.

I have some meager credentials after a handful of years judging the Southwest Wine Competition, where I was considered a man-on-the-street judge initially and ended up with the following impressive wine biography in one of the last regional competitions.

Charlie grew up with wine in Italy and in Germany. He currently reviews restaurants at more than 150 different ski resorts in the USA, Canada and Europe, from Ski Apache in Ruidoso to New England, and from Whistler, Canada, to the Alps in Europe.

He has tested wines together with top editors of Wine Spectator and Oinologia Magazine at many major wineries in the Navarra and Rioja regions of Spain, the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions of France, Veneto, Tuscany and Piemonte in Italy, as well as in the Mosel and Rhine Valleys and the Alsace region of Germany, and the Valais in Switzerland. He recently went on his first tasting trip to Sonoma and will return from another tour of wineries in Northern Spain just prior to the Southwest Wine Competition.

Drinking wine is part of the grand experience of dining. It doesn’t have to be daunting. These tips and rules are normally universal, whether ordering in a luxury restaurant or at the corner bistro. Remember, wine is an organic creation and a living thing. Even the most expensive wine can be flawed, just as the least expensive may be. Plus, any decent restaurant will not question your decisions about what to order or, heaven forbid, turn back as unacceptable. Be brave. Read on. You can’t go wrong.

Decide whether you want red or white or rosé
Forget the old rules of white with fish, red with beef, or strong wines with strong cheeses and light wines with bland cheeses. Wine is a personal choice. I have enjoyed fish and poultry with perfect red wines and steak or lamb with flavorful white Chardonnays.

In general, I’m a traditionalist. I like crisp, dry white wines like Chablis, Viura or Muscadet with fish and big, bold red Rioja, Rhone, Malbec and Piemonte wines with beef and lamb. But, that is a personal decision and, admittedly, I have broken all the pairing rules without ever discovering a wine that wasn’t drinkable with the meal. My biggest faux pas has been ordering an excellent and expensive red wine when faced with a mediocre meal. In that case, though I enjoyed the exceptional wine, it was a shame that it had to be shared with such an inferior food pairing.

Don’t order the second least expensive wine
A trick of the trade taught to me by one of Boston’s top restaurateurs is that the biggest mark-up on wines is normally reserved for the second-to-the-least expensive wine on the wine list.

I used to encourage him to keep a less-than-$20 bottle of wine on his menu for less-than-rich diners who wanted an affordable wine. He told me that after a month of pricing the wine at $17 a bottle, he had not sold out his initial order. The next weekend, he moved the wine to the second-to-the-least expensive slot and raised the price to $24. His entire cellar of that wine sold out in an evening.

It seems that uncertain wine buyers didn’t want to look “cheap” by ordering the least expensive wine on the menu. So, they gravitate to the next wine in line. I’ve seen it happen from restaurant to restaurant with thousands of customers. You can bet that the biggest mark-up is on the almost-the-least-expensive wine. Customers who buy that wine, in that case, are getting the least for their dining dollar.

No restaurateur will feature a poor wine, even the least expensive
Remember that. If the lowest-priced wine on the menu is bad, don’t return to that restaurant. The owner probably pays as much attention to the cuisine as he pays to the wine list.

Sometimes the most expensive wines are the best value
Restaurants have different pricing structures for their wine lists. Some owners simply add $20 or $25 to the price of each bottle. That means a wine that retails for $10 in the store will cost $30-$35 on a wine list. It also means that a wine that retails for $50 will cost between $70 and $75 on the same wine list.

Dining out can be a good time to test some of the more expensive wines you have been discussing with wine-snob friends, just to see what all the fuss is about. Many times the more expensive wines are a better value when compared to the more pedestrian labels.

Order a wine you don’t know; experiment
If you see a wine on the list that you don’t know, remember the rule that no decent restaurateur will put a bad wine on his list.

Unusual wines are a good excuse to engage the waiter or owner and ask about something different. You should specifically ask why that particular and unusual wine is included on their list. Let the waiter or owner know that you are curious about it and then go ahead and try it if the answers are satisfactory and you truly want to try something new.

Most diners have not heard about German Spätburgunder wines or special grapes such as Carménère that were once grown extensively in France, but now for the most part are found in Chile. Many know Pinot Grigio, but few have experienced a red Raboso from the same region of Veneto, Italy.

Screwcaps on white wine are a good thing; on young reds, too
Don’t sneer at screwcaps on wines. I admit that having the waiter or sommelier twist off the cap of your dinner wine isn’t as romantic or expressive as hearing a cork pop or watching the corkscrew rituals. However, young red wines don’t need a cork and many young white wines (the way they should be drunk) are perfectly fine coming from screwtop bottles. In fact, they are better. Most wine drinkers in the U.S. don’t realize when they are faced with a “corked” wine and end up drinking the wine, though they think it is a bit “unusual.” Screwtop bottles have eliminated this spoilage problem that affects one bottle out of every two cases of wine, by some estimates (perhaps more).

Most states let you take an unfinished bottle home
This is surprising to most citizens, but it is true. Here is a complete list of the state laws that govern carrying wine from restaurants where it was opened with a meal and then not finished.

Most of the states require that the wine be re-corked with the cork inserted back to lip of the bottle so that it cannot be pulled without a corkscrew. Other states require that the wine be put into a wine doggy bag. Some states rule that the wine taken from a restaurant must be carried in the car trunk or locked in the glove compartment.

All being said, knowing that unfinished wine can be carried home allows diners to order bottles later in the meal and not be worried about drinking it all prior to departing for home. It is a safety and common-sense issue.

Each bottle has five glasses of wine
I add this last bit of information so that everyone making the decision about buying a bottle or buying wine by the glass has some sense of proportion. If everyone at the table is drinking the same wine, purchasing a bottle is normally the best bet. However, if a couple is dining and one wants to drink white and the other insists on red, buying by the glass may be the way to go.

(Originally published in March 2012)

  • bodega3

    We often don’t buy a bottle but order by the glass when we don’t know much about the winery or varietal. A lot less expensive and a good way to try something new without worry of paying for something you might not like. Living in the wine country and a family that has grown grapes for over a century, we know that high priced wine doesn’t mean better wine any more that low priced wines means bad wines.

  • Tom Perry

    Great article, Charlie! As a 40-year veteran of the wine trade I was surprised to hear that the second cheapest wine on the list is often marked up more than the others. When in doubt, that’s what I usually did. Not any more!!!

  • Carchar

    I know nothing about wine. Either I like it or I don’t. But sometimes I have good instincts. Several years ago, while dining with family, I was the only one ordering a glass of wine. I ordered the cheapest glass of red, because it was a Malbec, a wine I had never heard of at the time. My first sip was so pleasant, that I passed the glass around to those who wanted to taste it. We ended up ordering a bottle for the table. It was Europe, so even my 14-year-old grandson was issued a glass without so much as a nod to the parents.