How to Decode a Restaurant’s Wine List

When you’re buying wine for yourself, you generally have a good idea of what you’re going to get. You know your preferences and can tailor your search to ensure you get something that you actually want.

But things can get a little bit tougher when you’re in a restaurant. For one, you have a limited number of wines to work with. Your preferred bottles may not be on the list and you may end up looking at a bunch of vintages that you don’t even recognise.

Plus, there’s the simple fact that a lot of restaurant’s wine lists aren’t as easy to decode as you may think they should be.

You want to avoid wasting your money on a wine that you don’t like. And that means you’re going to have to figure out exactly what the wine list is actually telling you.

Thankfully, you can use these tips to decode the list and get a bottle that you actually want.

Tip #1 – Glass vs Bottle

The first thing to consider is whether you should buy your wine by the glass or by the bottle. Most restaurants will offer you the choice, though you may find that especially desirable or expensive wines are available by the bottle only.

Generally speaking, the profit margin the restaurant makes on a bottle is a little lower than what they make on a glass. However, a single glass will cost you less than an entire bottle.

So, it’s a bit of a balancing game. You can spend less in real terms and savour the single glass that you buy. Or, you can buy the entire bottle for better value across several glasses of wine. However, you’ll waste money if you don’t drink the entire bottle.

Think about the meal itself and whether a bottle will suit every course. If it doesn’t, it may be best to go for a single glass.

Tip #2 – Check the Wine List Before You Arrive

A lot of restaurants now make their entire menus available on their websites. This can definitely work to your advantage.

Head online and see if you can locate their wine list. While you have time at your disposal, do a little bit of research to see what each wine has to offer so that you can point straight to the one you want when you sit down to eat.

Remember that it’s not exactly feasible to pull out your phone and check every wine on the list when you’re in the restaurant. A little bit of preparation beforehand can go a long way, especially if you’re looking to impress a date.

Tip #3 – Ask Your Server…But Don’t Rely on Them

Your server can give you a little bit of guidance. They’re familiar with the menu and should know what each wine has to offer and which dishes each works best with.

If you can give them an idea of what you want from a wine, or what dishes you want to order, they may be able to point you in the right direction.

However, remember that the server also has a duty to the restaurant. They need to help the restaurant earn money, which means that they may try to point you towards a more expensive bottle even though you might prefer something a little less expensive.

Ask for specific details from the server about why they’ve recommended a certain wine. If they can’t offer much of a reason beyond the price, politely thank them for their time and let them know you’ll take a couple more minutes to decide.

Tip #4 – Avoid the Second Cheapest Bottle

Restaurants have cottoned on to the fact that people don’t want to appear cheap when they’re buying their wine. And they’ve come up with a little tactic to exploit that fact.

Typically, there’s little, if any, difference between the quality of the cheapest and second-cheapest bottle of wine. However, the second-cheapest will usually cost a decent amount more than the cheapest.

That’s despite the fact that the wine likely cost the same amount for the restaurant.

They’re trying to get you to dip a little deeper into your wallet for a comparable bottle. Don’t fall for it. If you do go for the second bottle of wine, do so because it has qualities that attract you to it.

Tip #5 – The Listing Order

Restaurants use all sorts of different techniques to order their wine menus.

We’re going to talk about the Varietal method here. If the menus arranged by grape variety, it’s generally safe to assume that the wines at the top of the list are the lightest, while those at the bottom are the fullest. 

That means you can have a rough guess at how deep a wine is based on how far down the list it is.

Of course, this doesn’t work if the restaurant lists its wines by price instead of grape variety.

Tip #6 – Pronunciation

If you’re ordering a wine made in a country that doesn’t speak your native tongue, it’s natural to feel a little bit nervous about pronouncing it.

Don’t be. Nobody’s expecting you to get the name right if you don’t speak the language.

Just tell the server that you’re not sure how to pronounce the name. Then, either give it a crack or point out the wine on the menu. It really is that simple.

And yet, some people avoid ordering certain vintages because they feel embarrassed by the idea that they might mispronounce something. 

The Final Word

Hopefully, these tips will help you to decode the wine list in front of you and hopefully pick something that you actually like.

As a final tip, try to think about the different regions or grapes that you’re familiar with. If you’re completely stuck, look for those and they may guide you towards a wine that you’ll like.

But most importantly of all, have a little bit of fun with it. Try something that you don’t recognise. You may even end up finding a wine that you fall in love with.