If you've ever chosen a bottle of wine because of the cute animal on the label, this story is for you. Let's be honest: The whole wine world is really confusing. There are vintage years, aging techniques and prestigious boutiques - but, to most of us, it just gets down to something red or something white, right?
The good news is, you don't have to be able to spout off wine-speak to hold your own with a Bible-length wine list. The bad news? You do have to brush up on the basics.
So, in the spirit of combating complete oeno-ignorance, Jen Doak, co-founder of The Tasting Room in Seattle, and David LeClaire, a certified sommelier who hosts a wide variety of wine-tasting events around the state, waxed on about Ordering Wine at a Restaurant 101.
Here's the resulting top-10 list of advice:
1. There's no such thing as peanut greg-io. Learn how to pronounce the big names, or you're going to sound like a big geek. You don't need to know everything - and it's OK to stumble on the obscure French boutiques - but do yourself a favor and take "Gewurztraminer" out for a spin before your big date.
2. Take notes from Sammy Sosa. Corked = not good. One of every 30 bottles of wine is "corked," which means that bacteria have gotten into the wine, making it taste musty or vinegary. So, when a waiter opens a bottle at the table, you're supposed to taste it to make sure it isn't corked. It's easy: Just swirl it around in your glass for a moment, take a whiff and a few sips. If it's gone bad, "You'll know. It'll be nasty," promises Doak.
3. Vegas, baby, Vegas! Ordering a bottle of wine at a restaurant is a little bit of a gamble. If you don't like it (but it's not corked), you're out of luck. You can try to sweet-talk the waiter into swapping for a cheaper bottle of a different wine, or you can ask for a decanter (one of those classy carafes), which will help air out a cheap wine and make it taste better.
4. I like my wine like I like my men. Uh, fruity and full-bodied, with a big nose? Of all the vernacular in the wine world, here are a few must-knows: Wines aged in wooden barrels (instead of stainless steel) have an "oaky" taste. A "tannic" wine is sharper and often darker in color. (A white wine cannot be tannic). Wines that coat your mouth and have a lot going on in terms of taste and texture are called "full-bodied." Talk of a wine's "nose" or its "bouquet" simply refers to the way a wine smells.
5. Match point. Matching food and wine is a serious science, but don't stress: "There's food pairing, and then there's mood pairing," explains LeClaire. "Order whatever you're in the mood for." If you want to try to pair your wine and food, the basic adage is true: Red wine for spicy, bold meals; white for milder foods. When in doubt, opt for a pinot noir (red), a viognier (white) or a dry riesling (white). They go with anything.
6. "Be color blind! Don't be so shallow." En Vogue had it right: Why get into a color rut? If you've traditionally stuck to white wines, try a smooth pinot noir to mix it up. If red is your go-to favorite, give a dry riesling a shot. If you're trying something new, ask the waiter to taste one or two of the wines sold by the glass, then buy a bottle of whichever one you like better.
7. Move over, Scrooge McDuck. More expensive wine is not always better, especially in the store (bottom-shelf shoppers, rejoice!). But, since a bottle of wine in a restaurant is marked up, by up to three times its retail price (four times for wines by the glass), the cheapest bottle you'll want to buy in a restaurant is $30, says LeClaire. If you're watching pennies, go for wines from Spain, Chile, Argentina or Australia - they're good and half the price.
8. Know-your-double trouble. Syrah and shiraz are made from the same grape. So are pinot gris and pinot grigio. And fume blanc and sauvignon blanc. The name changes depending on where they're grown. Try not to be That Guy Who Says, "I don't like shiraz. Let's try a syrah instead."
9. Use a lifeline. At most nice restaurants, someone is paid to help you navigate the wine list, so asking for advice makes you look savvy. If the server isn't knowledgeable, ask to speak to the restaurant's wine buyer or wine expert, called a "sommelier." (And hey, big shot, that's pronounced suh-mulh-YAY).
10. Independent women, throw dem hands up at me! Frankly, ladies, Beyonce was onto something: In a world of power lunches and business dinners, deferring to the man at the table to order and taste your wine for you just isn't going to cut it. If need be, just open up that wine list and hazard a guess. "It does help to know what you're supposed to do," says Doak. It makes you look classy and educated. "But in the end, don't stress. Just relax, order and enjoy some wine!"