Fear Not the Sommelier 

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Restaurant wine lists can be incredibly weighty and complex (Monsoon Thai Bistro, for example) or straightforward and simple (like Trio’s). But regardless of the size and depth of the wine list, ordering wine in a restaurant can be awkward or even intimidating. However, it doesn’t have to be. Follow a few easy tips and even a wine rookie will have the sommelier eating from her hand.

First, don’t be rushed into buying a bottle of wine. I usually order a glass of something to sip while I peruse the menu. But ultimately, I want the wine I drink to pair well with what I’m eating. So decide on the dishes you plan to order and then make a wine selection or discuss options with your server.

Set a budget. Trust me, even the stuffiest sommelier will love you if you tell him straight up what kind of money you’d like to spend on wine. He or she doesn’t want to have to guess, so be honest and don’t worry about being cheap. A server or sommelier would much rather hear you say, “I’d like to spend $25 on wine” than have to play detective trying to figure out your price range. Plus, most knowledgeable wine servers really enjoy turning customers on to good, inexpensive wines. I don’t know of a single sommelier that doesn’t enjoy answering the question, “What’s the best bang-for-the-buck on your wine list?â€

Give your server a tip. No, I don’t mean to tip your server; you’ll do that anyway. But you can help a server or sommelier narrow your wine choices by giving them a tip about what sorts of wines you already enjoy. If you say, “I tend to like Chardonnay from Burgundy” or “I’m crazy about California Zins,” that’ll be useful information. Knowing a customer has a jones for Zinfandel might lead a sommelier to suggest branching out to a similar Old World wine. The more information you can supply your server about the types of wine you like, the better.

In restaurants, the person who ordered the wine is usually the taster. Don’t be intimidated by this ritual. Swirl the splash of wine your server poured around in the glass. Give it a sniff. Then taste the stuff. Don’t worry, the sommelier is not judging you. You are judging the wine. If you think there is something wrong with the wine, then let your server know immediately. Don’t be shy about this. You shouldn’t be intimidated into drinking a bottle of spoiled wine. If the wine tastes like it’s supposed to, just say “It’s fine,” and the server will proceed to fill up the empty glasses.

One other thing: Don’t hesitate to request special glasses. I hate to drink white wine out of the dinky white wine glasses many restaurants use. So I’m never bashful about asking for a red wine glass to drink my white wine out of. A knowledgeable server will respect your request.

Sips: I happened upon a very tasty bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand last week. It’s new to the state and called Silver Birch Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2005. If you’ve become accustomed to Sauvignon Blanc made in the New World Chardonnay style, this isn’t for you. As the folks at Silver Birch say, “No trees were chopped down to make this wine. This Sauvignon Blanc never touched an oak barrel, let alone an oak chip.” The wine is a steal at $11.95. Plus, it comes in a cool frosted-glass bottle that looks like it should contain vodka. It would make a pretty storage container for vinegar or oil after you enjoy the wine.

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More by Ted Scheffler

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