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Answer by Jonathan Brodsky, senior vice president at Chicken Soup for the Soul:
I believe that the easiest way to look sophisticated when ordering wine is to look like you know your wine so that you don’t need help from a sommelier or a waiter. I also think that this is silly—a sommelier likely knows more about wine than you do—but if the point is to impress, then here’s my algorithm:
Ask the other people what they like. Some people will answer with a color, some people will answer with a grape varietal (e.g. pinot), and some people will answer with a taste profile (dry, earthy, hint of lemon, and so on). If they answer with a color, pick the thir least expensive bottle of that color on the menu. If they answer with a varietal, pick the third least expensive bottle of that varietal on the menu. If they answer with a taste profile, tell them, “Oh, I think you’ll really enjoy this; it’s unique and a little different than what you’re used to, but it’s really good,” and then pick the third least expensive bottle that’s not from California or France. (This works best with producers from Spain, South Africa, Argentina, and Oregon in my experience, but I’ve had it work with Colorado, New York, and plenty of other wines.)
If possible, always order by bin number rather than bottle name. This saves you the embarrassment of having to pronounce something that your waiter might ask you to repeat. If there aren’t bin numbers, point to the wine as you order it from the menu. This avoids any translation issues, because the waiter will instantly stop listening to you and read the menu instead.
There are times when you’re at a restaurant without the diversity of choice of a large wine list—places with 20 or fewer bottles on the menu. In that case, default to the median price on the menu (likely to be in the $40–$50 range), and pick the oldest bottle in that range (if it’s a red) or, if you’re ordering white, ask the other people at the table if they like Californian wine or not (to many people, California is synonymous with oak). Then, order a Californian/American white or a French/Italian white based on their answers.
There are also times when the algorithm I’m using might fail because there are only two or three of a particular wine varietal on a menu; in this case, default to the second least expensive.
Surprisingly often, this algorithm will result in you ordering something that has changed from the menu (e.g., they’ll have the 2007 instead of the 2006). If this happens, don’t accept the newer wine and instead ask for the menu and repeat the algorithm using a different varietal. I often default to the taste profile choice in this case, accompanied by, “If I can’t have that one, let’s try something new. I’ve heard good things about this.” I do this because there are often multiple other countries to order from on a given menu, and most people are only familiar with California, French, and Italian wines.
Here are the reasons I pick the third least expensive in any category:
- If I’m ordering the wine, it tends to mean I’m paying for the meal. So it’s a cost-saving measure without the appearance of being cheap.
- The cheapest bottle on the menu or in any category (except for off-piste drinking, such as South African wines) is usually crap. So you’re not going to impress anyone with that.
- The second least expensive bottle on any menu was often the cheapest bottle last year, and it suffers from self-esteem issues.
- The cost difference between the third least expensive bottle on the menu and the next three to five in the category tends to be about $20, but the overall quality of those wines are all the same: They’re all drinkable and pleasant and, sometimes, surprisingly good. So no one will fault you for choosing bad wine, and you can go through the meal without wine being a hindrance to good conversation.
- Because of No. 1 above, it’s easier to order multiple bottles to get everyone to a happy place.
There is one other strategy that I’ve employed from time to time, but it requires actually knowing a bit about wine. That’s to order the wine you want to drink (assuming you know something about the producer, year, or region), and then follow that up with a drinkable, significantly less expensive bottle. I don’t like this strategy much, because you can always taste the difference, so I tend to employ this only when we’ve had a number of glasses each of the expensive bottle and we’re all aware that we’ve shifted from drinking for enjoyment of taste to drinking for enjoyment of company. I usually only do this with close friends, and I point it out up front—“Let’s start with this bottle, and then we can move to something not as good after a bottle or two.”
If you’re out with someone who really knows her wine better than you, let her order, even if you’re paying. Deferring to her knowledge base is the sophisticated thing to do.
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