Five questions you should know how to answer when ordering wine in a restaurant.

Going out to eat at a nice restaurant and ordering wine can be a major point of contention. There seems to be a rising popularity of lesser known grape varietals on wine lists lately that even have people like myself questioning the servers and bartenders. You can rest assured that if the restaurant you are dining at is well established, or has a great reputation, someone on staff should be able to help you. The real problem then, is whether you are able to help them help you. Below are five questions you could be asked to get to a wine you’ll be happy with, and what they mean.

Is there anything you are looking forward to trying in particular? This is where you can tell the server or somm you really like Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, or Syrah from Santa Barbara. Suppose you have a wine that you love, and can buy in the grocery store — tell your server which wine it is so they can find you something similar: something that can open up your horizons, while remaining within your wheelhouse.

Red or white? This one is pretty straight forward. Do you only like red wines, but want to be more open-minded? Tell your server what you don’t like in both of these wine genres so they can either crush your bias or ensure that what they recommend supersedes your current preferences. Service staff love introducing new experiences to their guests. It allows us to be more creative and feel like we create valuable experiences.

Old World or New World? The region wine grows in greatly affects the wine’s taste, as different regions have corresponding differences in terroir, climate, wine-making practices, and laws. Old World wine countries are so-named because wine-making first originated in them, and they include: Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Greece, Austria, and Hungary. New World wine countries include: the United States, Australia, South America, Argentina, and New Zealand. To put it simply, Old World wines are known for having an earthier taste. They are also higher in acid, lower in alcohol, taste less fruity, and are lighter in body. New World wines tend to have higher alcohol, while being heavier in body, and lower in acidity. Again, this is an oversimplification, but should help you understand why your server would want to know where your preference lies between the two styles.

What will you be eating? There are certain wines that will not taste good if paired with the wrong food — no matter how much you love them, a bad pairing can ruin even your favorite wines. Bordeaux and oysters are a classic example of a food pairing faus paux, as the brininess from the oysters is sure to make your Bordeaux taste like pennies. Remember that your server or somm wants to save you from a bad pairing. They also want to elevate your dish selection by coming up with a custom pairing for you — this is less about “rules” of white wine with fish and red wine with meat. Moving forward, we service professionals have learned how to adapt to guests’ taste preferences and get creative with pairings. If a guest doesn’t like white wine, but they’re having fish, we might recommend a light bodied Gamay or red Burgundy to suit their preference. To get the best dining experience, have a general idea of what you’ll be eating before asking for wine advice.

How much do you want to spend? Be honest with yourself: if your budget is realistically only $40, do not say you are willing to spend $75! You would be surprised what magic a talented sommelier or server can pull out of their hat when it comes to lower budgets. Secretly, we kind of like the challenge! If you’re afraid to say your budget out loud in front of your date, then simply point to a wine on the list that is within your budget and say “I’d like to try something in this range.” Your sommelier will understand.

Photo by Huy Phan on Unsplash

Now you are ready to run ahead and order the wine best suited for your taste preference, budget, and ideal dining experience. It’s all about relaying pertinent wine information to staff; ultimately, wine ordering should not be complicated or intimidating, especially when you have people available for the express purpose of helping you get a great experience.