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Reading Between the Wines: ordering made easy

Ever felt a little pressure when confronted with a restaurant’s wine list? You are not alone.

Ordering wine in restaurants can be a daunting prospect for many diners
Ordering wine in restaurants can be a daunting prospect for many diners

Amongst my friends (apart from those who have also worked in the drinks business), I am often singled out as ‘the one who orders the wine’ when we eat out together.

Wine lists positively fly at me from all corners of the table, and to be honest with you, it can all get very intimidating. You see, the only thing wine aficionados can ever tell you with authority, is what they personally like.

Annoyingly, many friends expect me to be able to know what they all individually like, and to find it on a wine list for them.

This reliance upon the ‘most knowledgeable’ member of the group is driven not by their oft-misplaced faith in my abilities to mind-read (I frequently order what I would have chosen, getting it wrong for them), but by a general nervousness about ordering wine in public.

Happily, it is very a simple thing to do, but in order to take the pain out of it you need to understand what the pressures are.

There are four reasons why it feels daunting to order restaurant wine. Firstly, there is time pressure, and often waiting staff will ask you for your drinks order first. Secondly, if in company, there is performance anxiety as your fellow diners will hope (if not expect) that the ordered beverage will be up to scratch. Thirdly, diners generally assume that there is superior knowledge on the part of the waiting staff, so are worried about looking silly in front of them and, lastly, there is that ever-awkward moment when they pour the first tiny little bit out of the bottle for you to “try the wine”. Nightmare. What to do?

1 If you are asked for your wine order before the dinner order, say you’d like to order your meals first so you can pick wine accordingly. This buys you more time, makes you look considered, and increases your chances of getting a good wine.

If you are parched but don’t want to waste money on pre-wine drinks (but are equally embarrassed to ask for tap water) say: “can we have a jug of iced water for the table please?” Works every time!

2 Take the pressure off by making it collaborative. Get your fellow diners to order their meals first and then ask them all what they normally like to drink, or what they think would be good with their chosen meal.

Equally, for the one left holding the wine list, learning up some basic food matching notes (I’m sure this will come up in this blog in the future), or taking a surreptitious glance at your smartphone under the table never hurts.

3 Use the staff’s knowledge (or lack thereof) to your advantage. No wine expert in the world walks into a restaurant they have never been to expecting to know every wine on the list. People that work there every day, on the other hand? They are very likely to have tried most of the wines, and if the establishment is worth its salt, it will have given them some rudimentary training on food matching.

In my experience, recommendations are great nine times out of ten. If you are worried they will point you to the £200 bottle (but feel uncomfortable specifying a budget), preselect a shortlist within your price range, and ask for their recommendation out of those. If your server is flummoxed by your requests, then you look less ignorant by comparison. Win!

4 ‘Trying the wine’ is always awkward, not least because waiting staff always seem to ask a man to do this – even if it was a female compatriot who ordered! The myth is that you try it and if you don’t like it, you send it back, but this isn’t the case; you are checking for flaw or damage.

This isn’t as expert as it sounds. Let them pour the wee splash, then swirl it round the glass holding the base firmly on the table (practice this at home first, or it might go everywhere...) then simply nose it – no sipping! If it smells fruity, say: “that’s perfect, thank you”. If it smells like rotting wood, wet dogs, seaweed or anything nasty like that, do not be afraid to say that you think there might be a problem with the wine, and ask the staff to check it for you. Invariably, they will at least open you a new one.

And that’s it! Follow these steps, and hopefully that will relieve some of the pressure next time you are dining out. Phew – that’s a load off!

Click here for Reading Between the Wines: beyond the supermarket

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Food and drink

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