How to Read a Restaurant Wine List

– I’ll Just Take the House Red?

It’s date night. You are finally going to get to show off your wine skills to that perfect someone you just met online.

You got this. You’ve been studying the Vastewine app for weeks now, sampled several bottles at home, and are feeling great. Time to take that first date to the fancy steakhouse and put your knowledge to the test. Let’s do it!

Wait, what? The server just dropped off a 6 ring binder wrapped in goatskin leather and written on Dead Sea Scroll paper. This wine list is not what you were expecting, was it? How do you decipher this? Is it written in Old English? Do you just say you need to use the restroom and split? Don’t worry. We can do this. Together.

Whether it’s the fancy steakhouse in the coolest part of town, or the dive bar slinging wings and hotdogs, wine lists can be overwhelming. The lists can consist of by the glass and full bottles, and can range from the basics like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay to the extreme, such as “words you can’t read unless you speak 8 languages.” Or, you can always take the easy route and just say “House Red please.”

Don’t worry, however. It’s not an impossible task. With some basic knowledge of how the wine list works, you can skim through for the perfect bottle or glass of your liking, all while seeming sophisticated. Like I said, we are going to do this together. Let’s get started.

Like I said, we are going to do this together. Let’s get started.

The List Itself

Obviously, every restaurant and bar doesn’t have the same wine list. Not only do they all carry different wines, they also have different styles of how to present it to you. Some may use the fancy leather bound skinny 4 foot tall list, while others may just hand you a piece of paper with them printed on it. Either way, it’s good to know what you are getting into before you get there.

In most instances, the wine list will be divided into sections of reds, whites, and sparkling wines. I can’t help you decide which type of wine you like best. That’s up to you. You have your own taste, as does each person you will be buying the wine for. So, before you even open up that list, have a basic idea of what type of wine you are wanting. If you typically like Merlot, then trend towards the reds and see what Merlot’s they offer.

Should I Order By The Glass

So, you got the list in front of you. It’s a big one, 4 pages long. You see 3 columns next to each wine: By The Glass, Carafe, and Bottle. What’s this Giraffe thing? Which option should I go with? Should I just get a beer? Legitimate questions, but don’t fret. I’m going to walk you through this.

First of all, not all restaurants and bars are going to offer by the glass or carafe’s (basically just a glass decanter holding between half a bottle to a full bottle.) We are not going to worry about the carafe from here on out. If that’s an option they offer and you want to explore it, go right ahead. The carafe is most often the house wines and a bit cheaper, not that that is a bad thing. If you are going for quantity, then go for it!

When it comes to trying to figure out whether or not you need to order by the glass or a full bottle, there are basic questions you need to ask yourself going in. First, does everybody in your party want the same thing? If the answer is no, then by the glass is a great option. For example, you prefer bold red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, but your date likes a fruitier, lighter white wine such as Riesling. There is no way in the world you are going to put that in your mouth, so you decide you will each get your own favorite.

Are you in the mood to explore a bit? Does the restaurant have an extensive wine list and you want to try out different wines from different regions? If so, this is another great time to order by the glass. My wife and I, for example, like to try wines we have never had, and we will often each get a different glass and share both. It makes for a fun, adventurous evening and you will also find some new wines that you may love (or hate.)

Does wine make you tipsy quick? If so, by the glass is the way to go. You don’t need to knock out an entire bottle and drive if you can’t handle it. Pick out a nice glass or 2, take your time and enjoy it. Then safely drive home.

Sometimes a restaurant will have special offerings of an expensive bottle by the glass. Although rare, this is also an opportunity to try some great wines that you otherwise couldn’t afford or want to pay for. If this is something that interests you, simply ask your server if they are offering any higher end wines by the glass.

Pricing

You’ve now figured out what type of wine your party wants and how you are going to order it. But what about the prices? How do you know if you are getting the most for you money? The obvious answer is to whip out your phone and use the Vastewine App. That’s what we do. We blend value and taste, giving you a unique score that helps you determine if that bottle or glass is worth the dough.

Restaurants make their money off of wine and alcohol markups, not food. Knowing this ahead of time is helpful so that you don’t go into total shock when you see the prices. Wine in restaurants and bars can be marked up 200% or more. That $10 bottle you’ve seen at the liquor store could be $7 a glass or $30 for a bottle at a restaurant. Many times, when a restaurant makes the list, you will see the cheaper options first and it will gradually increase as you scroll through that section. Sometimes the cheap option is great, but if on a budget, take a long hard look at the second and third options. In many cases, these wines will be better values overall. Obviously, if you are feeling adventurous, go for the more expensive option. They probably won’t offer by the glass for those, so be ready to dish out some cash.

Asking For Help

When all else fails, don’t hesitate to ask your server for help. The level of help you get, however, might depend on the establishment. If it’s an upscale, higher end restaurant with an extensive wine list, more than likely your server will be very knowledgeable when it comes to the wine selection. Let them know what type of wine or wines you are interested in, and simply ask for their recommendation. If they don’t know, they will find someone who does. Now, if you are at Bubba’s Big Boy Barbecue off the side of the highway, and your server is wearing daisy duke shorts and a tube top on roller skates, you might just have to wing it yourself. More than likely that wine list will be easy to navigate anyway.

Don’t let the wine list scare you. Before you leave the house, develop a plan in your head.

Are you in a cheap Pinot Noir mood? Are you feeling adventurous and want to try wines from around the world? Have a basic understanding of what you are walking into. I like to look online to see if they have a wine list posted before I go. If so, I’ll scan through and check those wines on my Vastewine App. If you don’t have time to plan and it’s a last second meeting of friends after work, don’t worry. Use your basic knowledge and don’t be afraid to ask for suggestions. As always, the wine is meant for YOU to enjoy. Order what you like, and As always…

Enjoy every sip, Every bottle.

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