You Can Figure Out this Wine Thing

08 May 2018

How can you figure out how to order wine like a pro? Here we go!

By Anne Wolfe Postic

I like “dry white wines that are minerally, not buttery.” I do not have sophisticated tastes. If you know wine, that description fits a variety of reasonably priced pinot grigios and sauvignon blancs. Anyone can buy wine at the grocery store, but not everyone can choose a wine deliberately and with confidence. I didn’t always know my taste. I had oenotherapy.

That’s a made-up thing, but it works. Years ago, seated at the bar at my favorite family-owned Thai bistro, I was chatting with Sam Suaudom, one of the owners and the wine guy.

“Sam?” I asked, after sampling something that suited my palate perfectly, “What do I like? You always know, and I don’t.”

He cocked his head, thought for a moment, and gave me a phrase I’ve used more times than I can count since then, usually to great success. “Dry, white wine, please.” I can say to any waiter or bartender worth their salt. “Minerally, not buttery.” And there it is: a nice glass of Sancerre or Grüner Veltliner, maybe Chenin blanc or Txakoli. That phrase works like magic.

At my favorite wine store, I made friends with Bryan. I told him my (not at all) secret phrase, and now he can put a case together for me in minutes. He knows my (low) price range and understands certain occasions merit cheaper wine than others. He gets how much I like one bottle of “closet wine” in every case. (You know, the bottle that’s a few dollars more that you keep in your closet in a cooler and don’t share with people who don’t appreciate it.)

How can you figure out how to order wine like a pro? Here we go!

Start with your favorite place to drink wine. Don’t have one? Step two …
Make sure that place has a good wine list and a bar. If you don’t have a regular place, find a chef-driven restaurant with an interesting wine list and a bar where patrons can eat. (Note: What constitutes an interesting wine list? For me, it means at least five or six reds and whites by the glass, at least one rosé, and two or three sparkling wines. They also have a bottle-only list that requires at least a full page. Bonus points: a few special wines that aren’t on the regular menu. A note on that bonus point: If the place is just adding wines the distributor couldn’t sell so they got them for cheap? Beware.
Eat at the bar and ask questions. Tell the bartender or waiter what you do like and then see what they recommend with the dish you’re ordering. A good chef wants you to enjoy everything about the meal and maybe learn something new.
Don’t be shy. Don’t be embarrassed to say, “I know nothing! Can you please help me?” Most people find this charming. And do not be embarrassed to ask that the wine fall within a certain price range. I say something like, “I’d love to try whatever you recommend, but please keep it under X a glass.” No one ever makes me feel bad about that.
Once you find something you love, ask for a description. Tell the waiter you’d like to know how to describe it so you can enjoy similar wines later. Done!

Do try to go early so the bartender or waiter has time to talk to you. But the real lesson here is that shyness gets you nowhere. There’s no shame in admitting you don’t know. People love it! So listen and learn. Cheers!

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