How to order wine for the table (without being a sommelier)
Say it with me… Sommelier… Sahm. L. Yay… Sommelier.
Bravo. You’re sounding pretentious and worldly and French already. A good start in the wine world. And if you’re thinking that it is just *chef’s kiss* perfect for the wine industry to have made a nearly unattainable profession nearly unpronounceable to boot, trust your instincts.
This haughty attitude is part of the wine world’s appeal, to be sure, but it also breeds resentment and, when forced to confront it, fear. When somebody corrects you, “AKSHUALLAY it’s only technically Champagne if it comes from… blah blah blah”, they’re doing their part to turn something enjoyable, ancient, and democratic into something intimidating and exclusive and, frankly, annoying. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and plenty of people work very hard (cough, cough sommeliers) to make the hard part easy for people like you and me. There are, of course, levels to this shit; the professional athletes of the wine industry are the Master Sommeliers (just 269 in the whole world).1 It’s highly unlikely that the sommelier you encounter at your local restaurant will be a Master, but if you are going to be ordering from one, or any credentialed sommelier for that matter, listen with reverence and nod along.
A sommelier’s job is not to make you feel or look dumb, so if this does occur there is a non zero chance that it is a result of you actually being dumb, which you are, when it comes to wine, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. And it is okay to admit that you are dumb (about the wine…) because the sommelier, or any good waiter, really, makes more money when s/he makes you feel not dumb, no, smart actually, for ordering two bottles that individually cost more than your shoes.
There are, however, three main things you can keep in mind if and when you find yourself in the decision making hot seat; things that will have you making smarter choices and looking like a well-mannered badass to the company you keep. The first thing is a social principle, and the other two are more like Wine 101 for all you soon-to-be oenophiles:
- Know your PLACE
- Know your TASTE
- Know your BASE
PLACE. By which we mean the setting you are dining in, but also, the occasion, the company, the social dynamic. It might be a date, a group dinner with friends, or meeting your significant other’s family for the first time. If a combination of all of the above, good luck. But regardless, in any circumstance, you are a gentleman and you aim to impress. Or are at least aiming not to disappoint. There is a difference.
Generally speaking, the responsibility of choosing the wine falls on whomever wants it, and if somebody wants it they will almost certainly let the table know that they do. Defer to the eager & your elders if you must, but if there are no obvious takers… you are the obvious taker. You care about dressing well, you care about eating well, so damn right you care about drinking well. This is the message you are sending.
And to make a well-informed decision, you need to crunch some numbers. Is this a quality or quantity crowd? Splitting the tab, or separate checks? This is when you want to appear casual but practical, classy yet economical. You want something nice, but you’re not the schmuck getting talked into the highest price tag on the menu either. And you’ll be damned if you order something you aren’t sure how to pronounce. When you are holding the wine list, above all else, remember that the confident rule the night.
Generally, one bottle of wine is good for 4 glasses. So do the arithmetic, but keep in mind that too much is usually preferable to not enough. And in a group, the real bang for your buck is in shared bottles for the table, not individual cocktails. (We happen to think cocktails are for after dinner anyway, but to each his own.) ‘House wine’ or ‘table wine’ is great for this purpose: cheaper, good enough, and plenty of it. Remember that higher prices do not always equal ‘better’, and anybody not thrilled with the house offering is welcome to put in a drink order of their own.
Do keep in mind too that if you order the wine, you’ll likely be the one to ‘taste’ it before the waiter pours full glasses. Plenty of opportunity here to be a tremendous a-hole, so act accordingly: quick swirl, quick sniff, and a quick taste. Satisfactory? Good. You can even say something positive to get the table jazzed. After all, you chose correctly.
TASTE & BASE. By which we mean to consider the preferences of those at the table and the meal you’ll be sharing. What do people like or not like? (Taste.) And what are most people going to be eating? (Base.) No need to go crazy here, just keep it simple:
1) Light before dark (start with white, end with red) -- there are nuances, and exceptions, yes, but to keep it simpler still, if you’re at lunch order white; dinner, order red. If a progression is in order, start with sparkling, then whites, then reds.
2) White with light dishes; red with dead dishes -- fine, maybe there was a more delicate way to put that, but we like rhyming and it’ll hopefully help with recall. ‘Light’ dishes are all varieties of seafood, white-sauce pastas, Asian fare, vegetarian, etc. ‘Dead’ dishes are the ones for you carnivores; white meats, red meats, cured meats, etc. ‘Heavier’ fare generally needs a ‘heavier’ wine.
That, dear reader, is all there is to it. The unspoken truth about wine generally is that it is all subjective. There are very few wrong answers when it comes to enjoying wine, no matter how many people might try to make you feel otherwise. People like what they like. So order what you order, appreciate & enjoy it, and to anybody that might express otherwise, stare at them with eyes that suggest they take a long walk off a short plank while you run another calculation that is certain to lift your spirits: ‘more for me.’
1. If you want to learn more about what it takes to become a Master might I suggest watching Jason Wise’s Somm (2012). Among other praise, it’s been cited by the likes of Lebron James and Dwayne Wade for why/how/when they got into wine. (Actually I recommend all three documentaries in the series if you want to build an appreciation for wine.) If you’re more of a reader, The Wine Bible or Wine Folly are as good a place to start as any.