Ordering wine at a restaurant can be a daunting task given the variety, peer pressure, etc, but there are ways to make the process easier.
The Wine List
If you intend to order wine and are not given the wine list with your menu, always ask for one. The organization of a wine list varies, but they are usually ordered by Country/Region or by Varietal. If you can’t find what you’re looking for then feel free to ask your server for help.
Restaurants sometimes have a member, or members if it’s really fancy!, of their staff that specialize in wine service, called sommeliers or wine stewards. If you ever feel like you are stuck and do not know what to order, ask for the Sommelier. If one is not available then more often than not, the server can give decent recommendations as they are briefed by restaurant owners/managers/chefs on the wine list.
By the Bottle vs. By the Glass
This question can be answered by figuring out how much wine will be consumed and how many varieties you, and your party, intend to try. You may find that different people in your party intend to eat very different foods and they may want a variety of wine. If you are going to try several varieties then ordering by the glass makes the most sense. If you, and anyone else at the table, are going to consume multiple glasses of the same wine then it’s a good idea to order by the bottle. Keep in mind that a bottle of wine typically can deliver three to four glasses of wine and even if you do not finish, restaurants are now increasingly allowing you to take the bottle home. I also typically will ask when a bottle was corked prior to ordering by the glass. If a bottle has been open longer than a day then I typically stray away from it.
Receiving the Wine
Although not common, you can receive a bad or substitute wine so it’s a good idea to pay attention to the receiving process. If you are ordering by the bottle then be sure that the bottle brought to you is in fact what you ordered. Quite often a restaurant will run out of wine and will try to substitute it with a ‘like’ wine. It is a good idea to have a backup in mind just in case. When your server opens the wine bottle he/she should give you the cork. Take a good look at it and make sure that the wine hasn’t penetrated the upper portion and that there is no mold on it. If you see mold send the bottle away. If you see penetration of wine through the cork then you should look carefully at the color of the wine for a browning or dullness, these are indicative of oxidized wine and this bottle should be sent away. Prior to trying the first taste you should first smell it to be sure it’s not vinegary and doesn’t smell like wet cardboard. If either of these is present, send it back.
Pricing & Bringing Your Own Wine
Buying wine at a restaurant is tricky when it comes to pricing. Often you will see a markup of two to three times the retail cost due to wholesale pricing constraints and other factors. One way to get around this is to bring your own wine. Many restaurants have a corking fee, which varies depending on the type of restaurant, but is usually around $10. Some higher-end restaurants may be a bit picky on what you bring in so it is a good idea to call ahead first and tell them it’s a special occasion and the type of wine you intend to bring.