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Column: How to debug a restaurant wine list

Tips to make reading wine lists at restaurants less intimidating
Wine list
Restaurant wine lists can be daunting and confusing and Richmond News wine columnist Tony has a few tips to make them less intimidating.

You attend a special dinner.  After you are seated, the waiter gives you is an encyclopedic book, which is their wine list.  You freeze like you have been zapped by the Iceman.  What do you do next?

This is one of the most frightening and least enjoyable parts of a fine dining night for some people. So here are a few of my tips on debugging a restaurant wine list:

  1. Before I go to a fancy restaurant, I do a bit of research online. These restaurants will often have their wine list posted online.  It is almost impossible to read through a voluminous wine list in a few moments so doing some research prior to going to the restaurant really helps.
  2. Express your admiration for the wine list.  Wine directors/sommeliers take a lot of time and effort in choosing appropriate wines for their wine list and categorizing them.  I often express my admiration for a restaurant’s wine list.  Normally, the sommelier or wine director will take this as a compliment and will go on to explain how the list is organized and why they chose certain wines.  Since you show any interest in wines, they will often share their recommendations with you or tell you which wines they are proud of having on their list.  They will also often tell you which wines are the best values as wine sommeliers/directors love finding these hidden gems for patrons.
  3. Do be shy to ask – if you are interested in having wine with your meal, do not just choose something randomly or quickly off the wine list.  The sommeliers/wine directors know the wine list inside out so you can tell them your price budget and also whether you have a preference for red or white and whether you want to be more adventurous or you want to stick with a certain grape variety.  With these parameters, most sommeliers make some good recommendations for you.  They are trained to do this and most of them love talking about wine.  When you just order wine, they either assume you know what you want or you are not interested in their opinion. I always also ask them to tell me a bit more about the wine I have ordered.  Sometimes I will even ask the sommelier to taste the wine with me and give me their tasting notes of the wine.  Wine drinking is an interactive experience and the more conversation you have with the sommelier, the better your wine experience at the restaurant will be.
  4. Many times, I will just ask my waiter to bring me an interesting glass of wine to start.  I will then order my meal and then I will ask if I can keep the wine list to look at.  This gives me a few more minutes to admire the wine list and pick out a wine for the rest of dinner without slowing down the dining experience.  If you don’t find anything interesting, you can just continue on with the first wine your ordered or change to another wine by the glass.

Hope these tips alleviate some of the stress when you are presented with a large wine list. 

If you are interested in buying some more affordable Bordeaux from the 2018 vintage, look for my article on Bordeaux 2018 recommendations that will be published on September 25.

Until next time, happy drinking!

Tony Kwan is a lifestyle writer.  Lawyer by day, food and wine lover by night, Tony aims to give you an insider’s guide to the best that life has to offer.