Reading Restaurant Wine Lists

Reading Restaurant Wine Lists
Vintage Railway Wine List
Photo © fw190a8

Ordering wine in a restaurant is centered around the restaurant's wine list. Unless you can understand the wine list, you'll never be able to make an informed decision about which wine to order. Unfortunately, wine lists sometimes appear designed to make the choice more difficult, not easier. Ordering wine from a restaurant's wine list isn't for the faint-hearted, but it also isn't too difficult once you get the hang of it.

Getting a Wine List

First, you need to get a wine list — and maybe more than one. Traditionally restaurants only provide one wine list per table because, traditionally, a single male was always in charge of choosing the wine. Some families still work this way, but for many others it's an archaic custom because women at the table might know as much or more about wine — and they certainly have wine preferences which should be taken into account.

It's bad enough when you find a single wine list already at the table, but the traditionalist attitudes are reinforced if the wine list is brought to the oldest male at the table without a second glance at the women. Don't be afraid to speak up and ask for one or more extra lists so everyone has an equal opportunity to see what wines are available and decide on what they would like to drink.

Some restaurants have more than one type of wine list: the standard wine list offered as a matter of course to every customer and a specialized or premium wine list that is available on request. This secondary list only contains the most expensive wines and is thus only a realistic option for people who really know their wines or people for whom money is no object.

Organization of Wine Lists

Wine lists are typically organized according to these criteria:

  1. By wine type: red wines, white wines, sparkling wines, after-dinner drinks
  2. By country: French champagnes, German white wines Australian red wines, etc.
  3. By region: Bordeaux, California, etc.
  4. By varietal: Chardonnay, Merlot, etc.

Restaurants that care more about wines will usually have more sub-divisions, especially if they have a lot of wines.

Information on Wine Lists

The sort of information you can expect to find on wine lists includes:

  • Wine name
  • Wine vintage
  • Price
  • Winery name
  • Description of the wine flavors
  • Pairing suggestions

The items in bold are the minimum you will find on any wine list; the rest are only occasionally provided.

Evaluating a Wine List

First, you should familiarize yourself with how the wine list is organized: where are the reds vs. whites and Chardonnay vs. Merlot, whether they are listed in ascending order of price, and so forth. This will help you quickly find the right group of wines once you know what sort of wine you want — a fruity white, a strong red, etc. This will also help you send the message to both the waiter and the others at the table that you're comfortable with wine and wine lists (even if you aren't).

Second, take a look at how the wine list is presented. Although it's not usually wise to judge a wine selection by the style of the presentation of the list, there is one relevant connection. Older-looking, permanent-looking lists suggest a wine selection that doesn't change much whereas a newer-looking, perhaps hand-written list suggests a selection that changes regularly. Such a list may be more accurate and such a selection may be more likely to have better wines.


Wine Information: Reading Restaurant Wine Lists

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