How to Navigate a Wine List at a Restaurant or Wine Bar

May 19, 2023by Andrew Lowry

by Andrew Lowry

Once again, we left it up to our followers on Instagram to choose the weekly blog post, and the overwhelming majority wanted to know how to navigate a wine list (or wine menu) at a restaurant or wine bar — so here it is!

Ordering wine at a restaurant or wine bar can be a daunting task. Sometimes wine lists can be hundreds of pages, filled with 15 different languages, and it is often just left with you at the table without much explanation. We feel for you. We've been there many times— that's why we are here to help! (By the way, all great restaurants and wine bars should take the time to explain the wine list to the customer.) 

First, we want to get you familiar with how most wine lists are organized so that you can dive into them with confidence. 

Wine List Rules:

Rule 1: The menu will be broken up by category 
This can vary from restaurant to restaurant but it should be obvious to the customer. Most often, it will be by type of wine: sparkling wine will be first, then white, then orange/natural/skin contact, then rosé, then red, and lastly, fortified/dessert wines. This is also the order in which you should drink wine if you were going to have a glass from every category. Other categorical breakdowns: 
By region: could be alphabetical, could be random, but within each region, whites will be separated from reds. 
By grape varietal: could be alphabetical, could be random, but the most known varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon will probably be listed first. 
Other: Sometimes wine bars will group wines in new and fun ways like by flavor (fruity, herbal, funky, etc.), or by moods/occasions (rainy day, celebration, Netflix and chill, date night, summer day by the lake, etc.), or by wine characteristics (acid, body, tannin, sweetness, or alcohol level).
Rule 2: For each category, wines will be listed from light-bodied to full-bodied 
'Body' describes the "weight" of the liquid on your palate. We always use the milk analogy: think of 2% milk as light-bodied and whole milk as full-bodied. 
Rule 3: By-the-glass options will be listed first
Bottle-only selections will be on the next page or further down the menu. Or, commonly, the menu will list bottle prices and, if you can order just a glass, that price will be next to the bottle prices.

Note: See Tip #5 below.

Rule 4: Each wine will be listed using the same naming convention

Usually, wines will be listed by winery first, then grape variety, then appellation, then vintage (ex: Bread and Butter Pinot Noir, Napa Valley 2018). However, the beverage director will choose whatever they like best. Right now, listing the varietal first is the trend, and we prefer this option because we think this is what most customers think of first when trying to find a wine on a menu.

Rule 5: Wines won't be listed or grouped by price
Note: See Tip #4 below.
Rule 6: Most wine bars/restaurants will use a sliding-scale markup
This means that the cheapest bottle on the menu is marked up the most (maybe 400% more than retail) and the most expensive bottle on the menu is marked up the least (maybe only 200%). So technically, the best value to be had is with the more expensive wines (remember: more expensive doesn't mean you will enjoy it more). This also makes the more expensive bottles more approachable.
 
Okay now you know how a wine list will be organized, but you still don't know what wine you should order. 
 
Your choice is much easier if you're at a wine bar and you aren't trying to pair a wine with an entrée. Just order whatever sounds cool and is within your price range. If you don't like it, try another! The beauty of a wine bar is that it should have an extensive by-the-glass program, and you can just taste your way to wine heaven. Also, the wine bar staff will always be able to have a conversation with you and guide you to a wine that you'll love. If they can't, find another wine bar.
 
But if you'll be dining at a restaurant, pairing food with wine can be a little complicated, so step one is to put aside your pride and ask the server for their best recommendation for the dish that you've chosen. Most restaurants train their staff extremely well on what wines pair best with the entrées on the menu (because the wine program brings in A LOT of revenue and tips). 
 
Additionally, depending on the niceness of the restaurant, there might be a trained sommelier on staff that will be more than willing to help you with your important selection — just ask — it's their job! Also, if you aren't a wine nerd, and you don't want to waste precious time at dinner looking through every option, then feed the somm your likes and dislikes when it comes to wine and leave it up to the wine professional to do the work for you!
 
Now, if the server isn't well trained and the restaurant doesn't have a somm, then what do you do?

Tip #1: Look up the wine list ahead of time.

Most restaurants and wine bars publish their wine list on their website, so if you want to ensure success, browse the list ahead of time and do some quick research before even stepping foot in the establishment.

Sounds insane? Well, based on the occasion, maybe it's unnecessary. But if it's a first date, a special occasion, or a business meeting where you want (need?) to impress, this step is a MUST.

Note: Wine lists are always changing, so when you arrive at the restaurant, don't be surprised if the list differs from what was online. Be prepared with a couple of backup choices if you find your first selection isn't available. 

Tip #2: Order what you like.

If you typically drink Pinot Noir, get Pinot Noir. No shame in sticking to the tried and true! It is your experience.

If you have a somm there to guide you (which you don't in this example), and you are feeling adventurous, ask them to point you towards something else like Pinot Noir that they'd think you'd like just as much.

Tip #3: The second cheapest bottle on the menu isn't always the best value

There is no truth to this. And, in fact, if I were a smart business owner who knew this was common advice, I would mark up the second cheapest bottle the most (wink wink, this happens.)

However, if the second cheapest bottle on the menu is something you like, don't overthink it. Just order it.

Tip #4: Remember that wine isn't cheap to make

Wine tends to be a more expensive choice of alcohol at the restaurant or bar. The mark of a truly great wine program (one that isn't price-gauging you) is one that doesn't sell wines that are just simply overpriced and overhyped (e.g. LA MARCA!!!).

Fun fact: The coffee industry did an amazing job educating the consumer that coffee is an expensive product to make; coffee isn't supposed to be cheap (like Folgers or Maxwell House) if everyone in the supply chain is being treated and paid fairly. The same is true for wine. 

Tip #5: Buying a bottle of wine will be a better value 

Doesn't mean you should buy a bottle though! 

If you are going to order 4 glasses of wine, then by the glass is typically more expensive than buying a bottle (a bottle has about 4 glasses of wine in it). However, ordering by the glass allows you to experiment with more wines — it's a give and take. 

Tip #6: Look for the category with the greatest number of selections.

Odds are, this is where the best bottle can be found because this is where the somm or beverage director is putting all their time and effort. 

Tip #7: We recommend trying something you can't get at the supermarket or liquor store 

Tip #8: We urge you to try something new each time

But as we said in Tip #2, order what you like if this tip scares you. We can still be friends.

A big reason why we love wine so much is because of the never-ending possibilities out there.

Tip #9: Sparkling wine tends to go well with most entrées (and it's delicious).

But it can be hard to find a selection that comes at a good price point.

Tip #10: Don’t worry about pronunciation.

Half of wine professionals can’t pronounce most wines correctly anyways. Often, there will be a Bin Number next to the wine you want (usually four numbers long, like Bin 1234), and it’s actually preferred to use that instead of the wine name because it also lets the server/somm off the hook. 

The Final Tip: Have fun!

And bring great company. Wine is always best when shared with friends and family.

Thanks for reading!

Cheers, 

Madi and Andy

PS, Please see the wine list below from one of our favorite restaurants (in San Francisco), State Bird Provisions. Browse this one, pick a wine for practice, and maybe go find it locally using the Wine-Searcher App!


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