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The waiter hands you the wine list and asks what you want to order. Confusion, fear, maybe even panic set in. You feel like he might as well have asked you to rappel down a mountain. Increase the pressure factor if you’re on a date or at a work dinner.
Breathe. Wine might be a vast subject, but you don’t have to know much to erase your intimidation—and even to sound knowledgeable. Here are a few key tips.
Pick your favorite grapes. Many of my friends have a go-to grape. They’ll sit down and just say “Pinot Noir” or “Sauvignon Blanc.” It’s not the in-depth wine geek way to go, but it’s quick, easy, and a solid place to start.
Learn a few key descriptors. Do you like heavy reds such as Cabernet and Malbec, or light ones such as Pinot Noir and Grenache? Do you like acidic whites (Sauvignon Blanc), or full-bodied ones (Chardonnay)? As a very general guide, domestic wines tend to be fruity and “old world” wines from France and Italy tend to have more of a balance between fruit and earthiness or minerality. Pay a little bit of attention to what you like about a wine when you’re drinking it—fruit, earth, minerality—or ask the waiter how she’d describe the wine so you can have a term or two in your wine vocabulary. Then the next time you’re ordering, you can use those descriptors to ask your server which wines on the list have those qualities.
Befriend your server. People always tell me they get intimidated by sommeliers and waiters and are sometimes embarrassed to ask questions that will expose their lack of wine knowledge. Forget all that! Servers are literally getting paid to help you find a wine you like, and are often pretty happy when they can help. (This is the hospitality industry, remember?) Tell them as much as you can about what you like, or just ask what would go well with what food you ordered (I often don’t choose my wine until I know what I’ll be eating).
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Find a region you love. Beyond knowing what grape you like, you can hone in on a region. Most people are familiar with Napa and Sonoma, so you can figure out if you like the rich Cabernets Napa produces or the fruity Pinot Noirs from Sonoma. But knowing and loving a few lesser-known regions can really help you find great values on a list and make you sound pretty grape-smart. I love the earthy, subtly black cherry Pinot Noirs from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, so before I studied wine I used to look for Willamette wines on a list. I was very rarely disappointed when I got one. If you recognize a region on a wine list, you’ll feel comfortable knowing you love dry and racy Rieslings from the Finger Lakes, funky Cab Francs from the Loire, or grapefruit-y Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand.
Pick a price—but don’t be a slave to it. Restaurant wine prices can definitely get up there, and while you probably have a basic budget, don’t pick solely by price. More expensive doesn’t always equal better wine (nor does it equal wine you’ll like more). Tons of things go into the cost of a wine: availability, the fame of a producer, the ease of growing the grape. If you don’t want to reveal out how much you’re willing to spend, here’s a great thing to know: Tell the waiter what you’re looking for, and he’ll usually point to two or three wines in different price ranges. That way, you can pick what works for your budget without having to ever actually name your price.
Try and track. Whenever you have a wine you like, write down its name or take a photo of its label. As a wine writer, I upload what wines I’m drinking and loving almost every day to Instagram, and it’s become a great album I can scroll through to remind me of my favorites. Apps like Vivino or Delectable will match the wine you’re drinking and recommend similar wines; you just need to upload a photo of the bottle. And maybe you’ll even start to recognize specific wines you had and loved.
Dare to drink different. You can’t be embarrassed by not knowing anything about wine if you don’t experiment. Tell your waiter you’re down to try whatever she thinks are the wine stars on the list. Cool wine servers should be psyched to share, and tasting different kinds of wines is the best way to learn what you like!
Alyssa Vitrano is a wine expert with certification in Viticulture & Vinification and Blind Tasting from the American Sommelier Association. She is also the founder of Grapefriend.com, a website that combines her love of the grape and of pop culture.
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