How to Pick a Wine List Winner

Pick a winner on the restaurant wine list: A sommelier and a wine writer reveal the secrets to savvy ordering.

THE SOMMELIER | Alpana Singh

wine list winter

Tips from the wine and spirits director for Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and youngest female Master Sommelier in the country:

Know your six-pack

Memorize the names of three red and three white wines that you like. This will give your server a clear idea of your taste preferences.

Name your price

Sommeliers want to know your price point--but your date doesn't. Just hold up the wine list, point to a price and say, "I'm interested in something like this."

Look for deals

Unless you're splurging, your wine shouldn't cost more than your food. Look for affordable bottles from lesser-known regions: Argentinean Malbec, Australian Riesling, New Zealand Pinot Noir or Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon.

Talk, talk, talk

You don't walk into a car dealership and say, "Pick a car for me; I like green." Talk to us! Tell us what you like. Plus, if you establish a relationship with a sommelier, you can call later for dinner-party tips.

When in doubt, get the glass

Wines sold by the glass are often the most interesting choices on the menu. And sommeliers will usually agree to pour a free sample (the wine's already open, after all).


Tips from the author of Oldman's Guide to Outsmarting Wine:

Fill in the blanks

Order wine with this Mad Lib: "Can you recommend a ___ (white/red) in the ___ (price) range to go with the ___ (dish)?" Feel free to throw in a style preference, too, such as buttery, spicy or earthy.

Outsmart the upsell

Don't let sommeliers or servers pressure you into ordering a more expensive bottle once you've told them what you want to spend. Just say you'd like to stick to your budget.

Read the label

When a server presents the bottle, make sure the year on the label is the one you ordered. You'd be surprised how often restaurants deliver different--and sometimes lesser-quality--vintages.

Sniff for spoilage

When you taste wine, you're checking to see if it's corked (or has gone bad), not whether you like it. A whiff is all it takes. If it smells like wet cardboard, it's probably corked; if it smells like vinegar, it's oxidized. Send it back or ask your server to confirm your suspicions.

Police the pour

Servers love to top off your wineglass, hoping you'll order another bottle. Tell them you'll take care of the refills.