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How to Order Wine at a Restaurant

Ever wish you could be one of those people who can navigate a restaurant wine list with ease? Well, you can be — it's actually not that difficult. You don't have to have encyclopedic knowledge on all the wine regions or grape varietals out there. You don't even have to know the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The trick is to know how to choose a wine that pairs well with your food and spend your money wisely. And when in doubt, the sommelier (or your server) is always there to help.

Pick your wine based on what you're eating

Here's a good rule of thumb: If you're having dinner at an Italian restaurant, choose an Italian wine. (French restaurant, French wine, etc.) Wine menus are generally listed by region, or you could simply ask your server to recommend a good regional wine. If you're dining at a restaurant where this formula doesn't work, scan the list for regions or grapes that you're familiar with and know you enjoy, and go with that.

Also keep in mind that the food you order should play a big role in the wine you choose. A refreshing Sauvignon Blanc will complement a lightly prepared seafood selection but clash with a gamy lamb dish. When in doubt, let your server know what you plan on ordering and ask for advice on what to drink with it.

Get the most bang for your buck

Many people order wine based on cost — they either get the cheapest bottle or the most expensive one. But choosing according to the price isn't the best move. The cheapest wine on the list is often the one that the restaurant wants to get rid of the fastest for one reason or another, and it's easy to really mark up the price of those wines because they're so inexpensive to begin with. Meanwhile, the most expensive wine may be of good quality, but why pay extra for what's already a very pricey purchase? Restaurant markups are generally two to three times the retail cost. You can buy the same bottle from the wine shop for much less and savor it properly at home. The bottom line: Go with a mid-priced bottle on the less expensive side that appeals to you.

Another way to get the most value is to order by the bottle instead of by the glass, especially if you're dining with at least one other person. (One bottle equals about four glasses.) Wines by the glass are marked up more than wines by the bottle, and if you're drinking at least two glasses anyway, the savings can be substantial. Only order wine by the glass if you're the only one drinking, or your intention is to enjoy a few different types of wine with your dinner.

Rely on the sommelier

The sommelier's sole job is to help you pick out a good wine at dinner. Their services are free and they don't work based on commission, so why not take advantage of the training and advice they have to offer? Tell them how much you want to spend and what you plan to order, and give a brief description of the types of wine you tend to like (or don't like).

When they make a suggestion for you, ask questions like: Why does this pair well with my food? What are some distinctive qualities about the grape or region? What's the story behind this wine — why did you choose it for your list? Don't be afraid to engage with the sommelier, who probably loves talking about wines with novices and experts alike. After all, that's their calling! It's a great opportunity for furthering your own wine knowledge as well, so the next time you open up a wine list at a restaurant, you can do it with confidence.

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