To some, the art of ordering wine is exactly that: a true art form built on knowledge, experience, and a sophisticated palate. To others, it's a minefield of social faux pas and self-doubt. Whether you've done your due diligence and visited the wineries of Napa Valley and Tuscany, or you scarcely know your reds from your whites, anyone can learn how to order wine like a pro (or at least master the art of faking it).
Most people make common mistakes when ordering wine simply because they don't have access to the right information, according to Danielle Gillespie, CEO and founder of the wine discovery platform Cork Guru. However, it really just comes down to price, region, and year.
Price can clue you in on the region, rarity, or age of a bottle of wine, and a good rule of thumb is to avoid the second cheapest option on the menu. It's often the worst value since restaurants know people will order it hoping to not look cheap, according to Gillespie. The region tells you where the grapes were grown or where the varietal was produced and can hint at the quality of a wine. Finally, the year listed can be deceiving. Older is not always better, Gillespie warns. "Not all wines age well, not all wines are meant to be aged, and not all years are good ones for certain grapes."
If you still don't have a clue what to order your safest bet is to pick from the largest selection on the menu. This will give you an idea of what the wine director cares about most. Ahead, Gillespie breaks down exactly how to order wine like a pro. Learn how to describe common varietals, which regions to look for, and what food to pair your choices with.
Describe it as: Fruit-forward, light-bodied, supple
Pair it with: Charcuterie, mild cheeses, salmon
When in doubt, look for: Willamette Valley, Oregon
Describe it as: Concentrated fruit, depth, full-bodied
Pair it with: Grilled meats, beef, lamb, mushrooms
When in doubt, look for: Napa Valley, California
Describe it as: Full-bodied, fleshy, roasted
Pair it with: Barbequed and smoked meats, duck, sausages
When in doubt, look for: Washington State
Describe it as: Dark fruit, bold, peppery
Pair it with: Beef, lamb, venison
When in doubt, look for: Santa Barbara County, California
Describe it as: Fresh, crisp, tart
Pair it with: Vegetable dishes, spicy Thai food, citrus
When in doubt, look for: New Zealand
Describe it as: Rich, creamy, buttery
Pair it with: Cream-based dishes, rich shellfish, chicken
When in doubt, look for: Russian River Valley, California
Describe it as: Fruity, crisp, tart
Pair it with: Light cream sauces, light seafood dishes, buffalo mozzarella
When in doubt, look for: Italy
Describe it as: Floral, citrus, mineral
Pair it with: Poultry, spicy foods, oily fish
When in doubt, look for: Germany
Describe it as: Bubbly, subtle fruit, velvety
Pair it with: Anything
When in doubt, look for: Champagne, France
Describe it as: Citrus, floral, bright
Pair it with: Light pasta dishes, salads, rich shellfish
When in doubt, look for: Provence, France
"I believe the best way to learn about wine is to open a bottle and drink it," Gillespie says. Since the only way to learn how to order wine is to expand your palate and taste your way through the endless varieties of this intricate beverage, head to a wine tasting and start sipping. Bottoms up!