Sommelier’s Tips For Ordering Wine at a Restaurant

On SIP Virtual Wine Tasting & Education episode 103 we get tips for confidently ordering wine in a restaurant from Sommelier Meghan Vandette.

It doesn’t have to feel paralyzing when the waiter hands you the wine list at a restaurant. With Meghan’s foolproof guide, you will always feel confident interacting with the sommelier and ordering wine for the table, whether it’s an intimate dinner for two or entertaining clients.

The process of ordering wine for the table

Don’t be intimidated

If you’re choosing wine for the group, don’t be afraid of the sommelier. The sommelier is not your enemy, they are the experts. If you’ve dealt with a stuffy sommelier in the past, know that as time goes on, sommeliers have become a little bit more welcoming. They have become more understanding of the fact that not every customer will have a high level of wine education.  No h0ow geeky you are, they are there to help guide you and make sure you are getting the best experience.

Talk about the food

tasting menus

Sommeliers are not only experts on the wine lists, but have vast knowledge of food and wine pairings. Your dining experience might go something like this:

Ideally you had a glass of bubbly or a cocktail when you sit down to peruse the wine list and dinner menu. Your tablemates discuss food options and get tripped up as you attempt to select wine for the group. This is the ideal moment to engage with the Sommelier. Sharing the meal selections is helpful in narrowing perfect wine pairings. 

If dining with a larger group, there will likely be a variety of meal selections requiring more than one bottle. The remedy? Pick two different wines to accommodate lighter and heavier dishes. Again, your Sommelier is skilled enough to guide to you to excellent choices.

Give clues on what you enjoy

If you know what you like, tell the sommelier to help direct them to the right bottle. If you love oaky flavors and aromas in Chardonnay, or light bodied red wines, make sure to share. This will make their job easier in refining options to help select the ideal bottle.

You may also mention a specific wine that you have previously enjoyed. Sommeliers are individuals who have dedicated their entire career to a single beverage and often times are familiar with myriad wine brands. On the other hand, don’t be discouraged if they don’t know a boutique producer, especially if it’s a limited production winery like the ones featured on the Cellar Angels Wine Marketplace and wine clubs. Those wines are not widely distributed and only a handful of people may recognize them.

Poll the group

Olabisi Wines

It’s always a good idea to ask your dinner companions what they love in an effort to narrow options. Not only will this make selecting wines for the table easier, you’ll get to know your dinner guests better and you’ll know what to order the next time to impress them.

If no Sommelier is present, polling your guests is the recommended method for wine selection.

Sommelier’s Tip

To subtly convey to the sommelier how much you’re looking to spend on a bottle without having to say out loud what your budget is, point at the price on the list and say you’re “looking for something in this region”.

Your guests will think you’re talking about a wine growing region but any sommelier will pick up on the clue and recommend something in your price range.

Should you order food or wine first?

It depends on the situation. If you’re at a restaurant with a group and you see an amazing bottle of wine on the menu, you will not want to miss out on the opportunity to try and share it. In this case, you’d ask your waiter for food recommendations based on your choice of wine. On the flip side, perhaps you’re dining at an award-winning restaurant and want to try the chef’s best food options. Allow your sommelier to guide your selections to create the best pairings. They will consider the protein and the sauce or preparation methods to recommend which wine will pair best with the dish. One of the best perks of a sommelier’s job is creating food and wine tasting menus. In this instance, the chef teams up with the sommelier and they select ideal wines served by the glass that perfectly pair with each course. Never shy away from the degustation/tasting menus, they will always offer a wonderful dining experience.

The opening act

opening wine at a restaurant

Often after selecting the wine, a sommelier will take away the bottle from the table. Don’t panic or fear they are swapping the wine for another cheaper bottle. This practice happens for several reasons. First, they need to taste the wine to make sure it’s now flawed and will likely need to spit the wine, which nobody wants to see that at the table. Secondly, if you’re ordering an older bottle of wine that needs to be decanted, they’ll often do that away from the table to avoid spills or properly decant sediment. Finally, it just may be a case that there is not be enough space at the table.

Sommelier’s Tip

A good indicator of substandard wine selections in a restaurant? Laminated menus, Cupcake and Meiomi (grocery store brands) are the only by-the-bottle options, and there are no vintages listed.

What’s the best solution? Order a cocktail or craft beer.

Proper BYOB etiquette

If you have a special bottle you want to open and enjoy at a restaurant, there are a few rules you should follow.

First, make sure the restaurant allows you to bring your own bottle of wine. Check the website or call the restaurant and ask and also inquire about corkage fees.

When you come in, always make sure the wine you’re bringing to a restaurant is not already on the wine list. If you decide to bring your own wine to a restaurant, make sure it’s in a nice bag or container. Bringing wine in a grocery bag is never a good look. If you pull out a box of Franzia, there’s going to be some raised eyebrows.

Always allow the server to open the wine and pour it for you. It’s also a good look to offer the sommelier a taste of the wine.

Restaurants run on razor thin food margins, sometimes less than 5%. By marking up alcoholic beverages they make up for the loss. Bringing your own wine takes away from the restaurant’s profits. This is why there are corkage fees to make up for the difference. If you see a wine on the list that you know you can get for a fraction of price at a store down the road, understand that by purchasing that wine you are supporting the restaurant as a whole and the staff.

Ordering Wine By The Glass

wine by the glass

While the margins on food at restaurants are razor thin, it is often not the case with wine. Sometimes you’ll see markups of up to 500%. So how do you know if you’re overpaying for a glass or bottle of wine?

Some restaurants have great by-the-glass programs. While there are some unwritten guidelines you can follow to determine if the wine is not overpriced, there are no rules that restaurants will follow when setting the prices.

A good rule of thumb is to assume that if a glass of Cabernet is priced at $10, usually that’s how much the restaurant paid for the bottle. However that is not always the case. Especially with higher-end bottles, the restaurants will be excited and passionate about offering that bottle of wine that they will eat the margins and offer lower mark-ups. Most often you’ll find more value ordering the higher price wines.

Worried that a bottle has been open for way too long when ordering by the glass? Before assuming the worst, ask for a taste. It is absolutely acceptable to ask the waiter to open a new bottle if you believe the wine has gone bad.

If your group as a whole will have at least one glass each of the same wine (4-5 glasses total), it always makes sense to order a bottle.

Sommelier’s Tip

A little goes a long way. Always offer the waiter or sommelier a taste when bringing your own wine to the restaurant.

Sommelier Meghan Vandette

Meet Sommelier Meghan Vandette 

Meghan has worked in the wine industry since 2009, beginning her career at culinary school in Chicago. Working as a private chef, she helped run a fine wine shop and cultivated her own fine wine education by receiving a second-level certification with the International Sommelier Guild.

Now the National Sales Director at Dusky Goose in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Meghan’s experience included curating wine lists for restaurants, providing fine wine sales & education for wine distribution companies and managing the Illinois market for Maisons & Domaines Henriot America.

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