Buying a bottle of wine at a restaurant is a more nerve-wracking experience than buying just a glass; you pay much more for a bottle than for a glass, and if you really don’t like a bottle, you end up wasting much more wine. Even longtime collectors and wine lovers don’t always have a good method for how to pick wine at a restaurant. However, buying a bottle doesn’t have to be terrifying. What’s more, mastering the art of buying wine at restaurants can expand your wine experience, allowing you to try brand new vintages that you might never have considered before.
How to Make Buying a Bottle of Wine at a Restaurant Less Overwhelming
The main reason many people find restaurant wine lists overwhelming is that they’re forced to make a decision quickly, usually without looking at the list in advance. In a wine shop, you’re free to wander the aisles or look up tasting notes on your phone, but in a restaurant, your sommelier or waiter is in a hurry to put your order in.
To get around this, I recommend using one of three methods:
Option 1: Do Your Research
It’s often possible to research the restaurant’s wine list in advance. Do they have a menu online? If not, look for reviews from previous guests who bought wine from the restaurant. Was there a particular wine that they enjoyed? It can also help to find out if the restaurant specializes in a particular kind of wine. Some restaurants may carry only unfiltered wines, or only California wines. Knowing what their specialty is can help you research these wines ahead of time or at least give you an idea of what your options will be. When you come prepared with a wine or two already in mind, it takes some of the pressure off of you to choose a perfect bottle in the moment. However, remember that some wine lists might have bottles that are out of stock. Your first picks may be especially popular and frequently out of stock. If you can, come prepared with at least two backup options.
Option 2: Ask for More Time
Although your sommelier is probably hoping to get your order in quickly, this doesn’t mean that you have to rush through the wine list. You can ask your sommelier for more time to peruse the menu without being considered rude. Request a glass of water to start, and explain to the sommelier that you will be ordering wine a little later. You can even put your food order in before your wine; you don’t have to order it all at once. It’s better to take your time and buy a bottle you’ll love than to get stuck with a last-minute choice.
Option 3: Embrace Spontaneity
Ultimately, you should go into this experience with an open mind. Buying a bottle of wine at a restaurant is usually trial and error, unless you’ve had that specific bottle before. To ensure that you never regret your decision, set a maximum budget that you’re willing to spend on a bottle, and choose wines within that budget that sound appealing to you in the moment. Committing to a wine at a restaurant is always a little bit of a gamble, and like gambling, you can get better with practice, but in the end it’s more about the experience than about getting your money’s worth.
Take Your Guests into Consideration
A few years ago, I took two good friends to my favorite wine bar downtown. I knew that I wanted to order at least one bottle of wine for the table, but this proved more challenging than I expected. One of my friends ordered a grilled vegetable platter, the other ordered baked cod, and I ordered a creamy pasta. Although I really wanted to buy a Super Tuscan for the table, I knew that the wine wouldn’t necessarily pair well with my friend’s cod. Instead, I compromised by ordering a white Burgundy, which paired equally well with every dish. When you’re buying a bottle of wine at a restaurant, you need to consider not just what you want, but what your guests want as well. The benefit of visiting a restaurant with friends is that you can make wine selection a team effort. This can take some of the pressure off you to choose a perfect wine by yourself, and it makes the tasting experience more enjoyable. Not everyone is equally open-minded about wine, though. If you’re dining with friends who have very strong and specific likes and dislikes when it comes to wine, let them drink by the glass, or go for more than one bottle.
Get More Value from Your Bottle
Restaurants always mark wine up significantly, but sometimes the markup is extreme. To ensure that you’re getting the best value by going for a bottle over a glass, check whether the restaurant offers wine by the glass for that particular vintage. The bottle should be about four times more expensive than the single glass. For instance, a bottle of 2014 Turley that’s worth $50 should cost about $12 to $13 per glass. If the cost per glass is significantly higher than that, then the bottle is a better value than a glass. This is often the case, making a bottle of wine generally a good investment. If any wine ends up leftover, you can always ask your sommelier to recork the bottle so that you can take it home with you. Usually, the only time that a glass is more worthwhile is if the wine is especially new to you or you suspect that you may not like it. When you’re experimenting with an unfamiliar wine, you can always try it by the glass first, then return to the restaurant later to buy a full bottle.
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