Wine 101: How to Navigate a Wine List

Wine 101: How to Navigate a Wine List

This episode of “Wine101” is brought to you by Clos du Bois, which in French means “a vineyard in the woods,” or possibly just “barrel.” Either way, Clos du Bois combines French winemaking techniques with California grapes. If you see Clos du Bois on a wine list at a restaurant (spoiler alert: Ordering wine is our topic today), you can feel confident ordering, because their reds and whites pair with everything from master chef fare to macaroni and cheese. To check out Clos du Bois or other wine we talk about on “Wine 101,” follow the link in the episode description to

In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers shares everything patrons need to know about a restaurant’s wine list. He offers pro tips on navigating large (and small) lists, how to pair wine and food, and how to work with a server or somm to get exactly what you’re looking for. Tune in to learn more.


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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. Am I just Gen X? Am I too old? I’m not really sure, but I really miss bumper cars.

What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 5 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director at VinePair. How are you?

Have you ever been to a restaurant, opened the wine list, and just been like, “Oh my God, what do I do?” Well, here’s another real-life application episode for you guys. We’re going to learn how to navigate a wine list. I think it’s important.

Last episode, I hope that I gave you guys a little more confidence — if you don’t have it — in going into a wine shop, or even a supermarket, and owning that space. Let it be your place to buy wine. Don’t let it intimidate you. There’s a bunch of stuff you can do to get involved, and it’s awesome. It’s a retail shop, it’s cool. You buy some wine, you go home, you have dinner, it’s a beautiful night. You go to a restaurant, and it’s different. It’s bustling. There’s people in there. It’s crazy. Things are happening really fast. You get sat down. Here’s your wine list. Here’s the menu. This is going to be great. Looking at the menu. I know what a pork chop is, I know what this kind of pasta is. I don’t know what that pasta is, but I can look it up on Google. This is all really good. I’m enjoying myself. And oh my God, is that the wine list? It’s huge! You pick up the heavy tome, you open it up. You look at the table of contents, you really don’t know what you’re looking for. You see things like Champagne, red, white, France, Italy. I don’t even know where to start. Is there even a sommelier at this restaurant? I don’t even know, but I need help.

I get it, wine lovers. It’s crazy out there. Sometimes, it seems that every time you go to a new restaurant and get the wine list, it’s different. It’s organized differently. There’s different stuff there and things you don’t understand. It can be very anxiety-producing, but you’re in a public space. I don’t want to show how lunatic-nervous I am right now. And it is true. Restaurants are competing with other restaurants; wine lists are competing with other wine lists or wine programs. So often, wine list designs will be a little bit different and unique from place to place, because they’re trying to be different and unique.

Unfortunately, sometimes that just confuses the hell out of us. And all this is just natural. You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into when you go to a restaurant with a wine list. Sometimes, the restaurant will try to keep an updated list of their wines online, but that’s not always the case. Wine programs change so fast that it’s hard to keep up with them sometimes — especially in the very busy, popular restaurants. You would hope that it would be easy to just research online, go in, look at the wine list, know what you’re doing, and order it. But sometimes you go in, you get it all figured out, you order the wine, and they say, “Oh, sorry, sir, we’re out of that wine. I’m sorry we didn’t update our website. Is there anything else you would like?” You’re saying what? They’re changing the wine list all the time, whether the wine list is a big tome, like I was saying, or if it’s only one or two sheets of paper. I say they’re always different because it’s kind of a trend these days, everyone’s trying to find a new way to design a wine list so that you can enjoy it and say, “That was a really cool wine list.” But there are some standard things that people think about when designing a wine list to help you out.

No matter what, everyone’s trying to help you out, whether they think they’re doing it or not. Just like I had a wine shop for seven or so years, I had a restaurant and wine bar for 10 or so years. Instead of going through the minutiae of a wine list, I’m going to go ahead and just talk about that experience in general — you walk in, you’re about to sit down, the wine list, all the stuff — so that you can have all the confidence you need to get through the wine situation, so you can order food and enjoy yourself.

The first thing I like to do when I walk into a restaurant, because you know I’m going to order some wine, is to catch the vibe. Is this a place where you see wine glasses on tables, wine bottles, and decanters? Is it a wine-centric vibe? It doesn’t have to be, but it kind of gives you a sense of how geeky it’s going to be. It’s a cool thing to check. Once you’re sat, you get all the menus, and the wine list is there. Before you even open the wine list, there are two things to never worry about. Number 1: Never worry about pronunciation. Like, who cares? This wine list will probably have multiple languages in it, and it’s not a requirement for eating out. People have to know that stuff for you. So don’t ever worry about pronunciation. You can point to a wine. You can try to pronounce it and make a joke out of it. Whatever you want to do, it doesn’t matter. You’re just trying to get a good wine. Even if you can’t pronounce it, it’s totally cool.

Another thing you can think about before you even open a wine list is to also not worry about price. You will buy whatever wine you want to buy at the price point you want to buy it. That’s it. This is your money; it’s your night. You do whatever you want. If the server or the somm and you vibe and everything’s cool and they want to talk you into something a little bit more, that’s cool. But don’t ever worry about price. There are wines on the list to buy, whether they are $30 or $100 or more, there are wines for you to buy. That’s cool. In general, if a wine list is like a book and has multiple, multiple pages, the first few pages will have a “by the glass” list. If it’s a shorter wine list, maybe one or two pages, they may list all of the wines by the bottle. And whichever ones are by the glass, you’ll notice a little price slash next to the bottle price, meaning that that is by the glass. Often, a by-the-glass list will start with bubbly, then go to rosé, then white, then red, and then you’ll have other categories after that. Maybe there’s some orange wines. Maybe they have some fortified wines by the glass. If a wine list is set up like this in the beginning, there’s a good chance that’s how it’s going to roll from page to page going forward. Not all the time, but it’s a good place to start.

Sometimes, it’s nice to start with a bubbly. You can ask the server what they suggest or pick what you want if you see what you like. But getting a glass of bubbly or even a bottle of bubbly before you even start getting into the wine list gives you more time to look at the wine list, because the server is going and grabbing stuff for you. But also, when you have a glass in your hand looking through a wine list, it kind of feels like you’re already starting the experience.

But either way, like I said, if you’re at a wine-centric place or a place with a wine list, we’re on a wine journey here. Right, wine lovers? We are trying to find these places that have the wine list that you want to dive into and explore. And often, the people buying for this list actually dig the wine they’re buying, in putting it on the list. So once you have a bubbly in hand, open the wine list, flip through and get a sense of how this thing is organized. It might be in the same order as the by-the-glass list. Or it might be by region. It might be by variety, it might be by character: smooth, full body, light body, all this stuff. Just get a sense of it. You don’t have to understand it right away. Just kind of know it. So when you’re talking to the somm later, you have an idea of what the wine list looks like when you flip back and forth.

You may have heard that it’s cheaper to get a bottle than it is by the glass, and often that’s true. The way that wine by the glass is priced is a lot different than the way bottles are priced. If you get four glasses of wine, which is the same as a bottle of wine, you might be spending more. But that doesn’t really matter. If it matters to you, that’s one thing, but this is a wine experience, right? So you either want to go for a bottle, or you want to have a couple of glasses and a bottle, or you want to go by- glass the whole time. Because you’re looking at this by-the-glass list and all this stuff is very cool. Maybe you order a glass of wine for your appetizer, a glass of wine for your entrée, maybe two, and then a dessert wine afterwards. It depends on what you want to do. It’s all up to you. Also, as you get to the higher price points, you’re just buying a bottle of wine, and maybe it’s a little expensive, but you’re going to have an awesome time with it. So don’t worry about that too much.

I’m sitting here talking about larger wine lists, but small and large wine lists can be intimidating and overwhelming, depending on what they’re offering. My restaurant was all Italian. I had a big tome, one of the big, intimidating wine lists. What I did was, I went from region to region of Italy. I had a little description of that region, what’s popular, and the food that goes with that, and I tried to be as clear as possible. But me being as clear as possible in my head did not often translate to the consumer. That’s why we had to help them out. And I loved helping customers find the right wine. It’s one of my favorite things in the world. Another thing to think about when you’re looking at a wine list is, you don’t always have to branch out and do something you’ve never tried before. I say that because sometimes, wine lists will have familiarity; wines from places or varieties that you’re familiar with. But they’ll also have some very esoteric stuff. If you want to go the esoteric route, that’s awesome. We’re gonna talk about that in a second. But if you’re not necessarily sure and you’re a little bit nervous about the whole thing, there is nothing wrong with looking towards the things that you find familiar. Is it Napa? Is it Sonoma? Is it Italy? Is it specifically Abruzzo and Italy? Is it France? Is it the Loire? What is it that you are familiar with? When you have a wine list that has familiar places like that or varieties like that, there’s a really good chance that you’ve never tried some of them before. If you’re familiar with the area, stick to what you know. Find something new within the area, and you will have a much more comfortable conversation with the somm of the server, because you have some familiarity. If you know you like Napa Cabs and there’s a Napa section and you’re looking at all the Cabs in there, and you don’t necessarily recognize any of them, you can have a conversation with the server about the Cabs that you do like. The somm or server will know how to get close to what your preference is. It’ll be fun.

If you do want to branch out, stick to the word I keep on saying: familiarity. You can just tell the server or the somm what you like. Let’s say they do have a Napa section. You look at all the Napa Cabs, you have a conversation with the server or somm, and they guide you to a Cab that they think you’re going to like. And then you’re like, “you know what? If I like this, what else will I like?” They can guide you to another place, another region, another variety, or whatever. And they can help you have a new experience of something that’s in your preference point. And it’s a win-win, guys.

These are ways to have a grounding point to get to another piece of information if you want to branch out. But if you just want to have a conversation, these humans that you’re interacting with, it’s their job to find something that you dig. You can just say whatever you want. Say, “I like peppery wines.” They’re going to have to figure that out. “I like aromas of blueberries.” OK, we’ll figure that out. “I like cherries. I like wines with high acid. I like wines with high alcohol.” All these things you can say, because it’s your experience. You’re about to buy a bottle of wine from them and open it and drink it. Try to get to where you want to be. You get to ask questions. Again, as we’re talking about this, please don’t worry about price. There are wines in there at any price point for you.

Which leads me to another cool thing you can do. The one thing about finding a restaurant that has an awesome wine list that you actually enjoy and want to come back to and explore, means that you can go back to multiple times. You can get to know the staff. You can get to know the somm or the servers that are there, and they are often well versed with anything new that comes in. If you go to a place and you have a relationship with them and you know the wine list pretty well and you’re not intimidated anymore because you’ve been going a couple of times, they’ll see you and maybe they have a new wine on the list that’s your preference. They might say, “Hey, by the way, we’ve got a really good Cab Franc. I think you’ll dig it.” That’s another really cool way to get to know wine, is to go back to a place multiple times that you really enjoy.

Another cool thing is, servers will often have a pre-shift meeting where whoever’s in charge of the wine program might actually pop a bottle. They might taste them on new wines or taste them on wines that pair well with a certain dish or certain special they want to get you into. And that’s a cool thing as well. Then there is, to some, the daunting task of pairing food with wine in a restaurant environment. The ideal situation is that you don’t have to think at all. The people that are serving you, the somms and the servers and everybody, you trust them. This is going well, and they make suggestions and it works. Or let’s say you did it before and it worked and you’re back again, you put yourself into the hands of the people. That’s great.

But if that’s not the case, here are some things to think about when you’re pairing food and wine, if it’s something you want to do. Just like how we talked about familiarity of regions and stuff like that, you can do the same thing with food and wine. If you know that Napa Cab goes well with a certain steak, you go ahead and do that. Maybe you’ve cooked steak and had Napa Cab at home, but you’re in a restaurant with a chef that does something a little bit different. So even if you get a Napa Cab and a steak of some sort off that menu, it’s going to be different than what you had at home and will probably be an awesome experience.

Another surefire way of pairing food and wine is the “grow-together-go-together” thing. If you’re in a place that has a wine region and local food, and they pair these things together all the time, that’s a good place to go. That’s a good way to do this, especially if you’re traveling in Europe. That’s a whole different thing. If you’re traveling in Europe, basically do whatever they say, because they are growing everything within miles of that restaurant. And the wine is being made within miles of that restaurant. They’ve been doing it for a long time, and you can trust that what they’re pairing with the food and the wine is legit. But in other places like California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, it’s awesome to say, “I’m having this brisket. What do you guys usually have with the brisket? Oh, Tempranillo? That’s cool. I know Tempranillo. I didn’t know it was in Texas. This is going to be a fun experience.” Oh my gosh, you’re having new experiences.

But if none of that is working and you don’t want to do any of that, literally ask the server or somm what to pair with what you’re having. Depending on how many people you’re with, the somm can actually find wine that pairs with everything. There are wines that are great with all kinds of food, and they’ll do that. If that happens and it works, again, you log that away. If you’re doing it at home, you can go get that wine and do it at home. One thing with pairing food and wine, like I said earlier, is you don’t really have to do it at all. There are some sharp contrasts in food and wine pairing. In Season 1, I have a whole episode on food and wine pairing and the science behind it. But something to think about is, you’re gonna be spending more money on the wine than you are on the food. So don’t sacrifice what you want on that wine list for the food you’re getting. If it’s not working, just do whatever you want to do. These are just ways to guide you if you want to get that sort of experience. So that’s my advice on how you can navigate a wine list and a wine program with confidence, and not feel anxious at all.

There are these two things that happen sometimes. Sometimes, wine is not what you think it is. It could be because the person you’re talking about the wine with, the server or somm, maybe didn’t interpret what you were saying the right way. Even though you said blueberries and cherries and you were very clear, you taste the wine and you don’t get any of that. Well, that would be something you want to bring up. But sometimes, there’s actually something wrong with the wine. If the wine is corked or an oxidized bottle is glaringly wrong and you are not getting what the server and you talked about, you let the server or somm smell it and they will be like, “Oh yeah, this is corked,” or, “This is oxidized.” I have a whole episode on wine faults in Season 2.

There’s also the situation where the by-the-glass program is a little bit messy in that, maybe the restaurant’s a little bit warm and the bottles have been open for too long. And when you get a glass of that Barbera you were asking for and you sip it, if it’s a little bit oxidized or something’s wrong with it, you have every right to ask if that’s the case. And this can be a pretty awkward conversation, but you get to at least ask, and no one’s going to look at you any differently. You’re a patron at this restaurant and you’re there to have a good time. You’re spending money, and they’re happy to have you. So if the red wine you ordered is too warm and it smells a little oxidized, you get to say something like that.

One last thing before we go. The whole thing when people put the cork down in front of you, that’s another thing that can make people a little bit nervous. Just know, that is a gesture. There’s nothing required with that. They give you the cork. You don’t have to smell it. You don’t even have to look at it. They’re going to put it on the table, and you can take it home with you, or it can move around the table during your dinner. But smelling the cork of a wine does nothing for you to enjoy the wine, because you’re about to actually sip the wine and enjoy it. What they’re going to do is, they’re going to pop the bottle, maybe put the cork on the table, maybe they don’t. But they’re going to pop the bottle. They’re going to give you a little taste. You’re going to swirl it around (or not). You’re going to smell it. You’re going to taste it. You’re going to confirm that it’s what you and that server or somm talked about. The cork is not going to add anything to that experience, other than look really cool. Or you can save it for nostalgia or to remember that night or something. Yes, there are very fancy restaurants that have a whole thing with the cork. Sometimes, they actually wax the cork for you or imprint it with the logo of the restaurant or something like that. It’s a big gesture. But that’s all that is, just a gesture.

I hope this information helps you if you are nervous about wine lists, wine programs, or eating in restaurants with wines. I hope this helps you gain some confidence, lose some of that nervous energy, and just enjoy, man. It’s wine. How cool is wine, guys? I’ll see you next week.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.

The article Wine 101: How to Navigate a Wine List appeared first on VinePair.

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