Sharing glasses of wine over an indulgent meal is one of the most tried and true Valentine’s Day activities. But what happens when you look at the wine selection, have no idea what to order, and end up just pointing to the menu when the server comes because you don’t even know how to pronounce the names?
Let’s avoid that moment altogether. Instead, find out how to order the right glass of wine when dining out. With the help of Tom Lillard, a sales representative for Pure Wine Company with six years of industry knowledge, we can all order that glass of cabernet with confidence.
Ordering wine with a meal is truly about the pairing you’re creating. As a newbie wine drinker, the best thing you can do for yourself when dining out is finding a wine that complements your plate. “There’s a lot of very easy go-tos you can rely on,” says Lillard.
If you’re having sushi for example, you’ll want a light wine, and that doesn’t necessarily mean white over red. What this actually refers to is the taste of the wine. For seafood, which itself is pretty light, you’ll want something fresh and crisp. Lillard suggests a Pinot Noir if you want a red wine or a Sauvignon Blanc or a Pinot Grigio if you want a white wine.
If you’re going to order spicy food, sweeter wines (my favorite type) have their time to shine. To balance the spice in your food, avoid wine with high alcohol content and reach for something on the sweeter side, like moscato or riesling. “The more sugar there is, the better it is with spicy food because the sugar kind of helps mask all the spices where alcohol actually enhances the spice,” explains Lillard.
Echoing the knowledge I gained in my first chapter of Grappling With Grapes, wine experts agree sweet, white wines are easier to enjoy. Lorenza Scianna, a consultant oenologist of the Consortium for the protection of DOC Sicilia wines, says sweet flavor is one of the first we learn to love because it is linked to breast milk whereas the alcohol, tannin, and sometimes astringency of red wine makes it a more demanding experience for our palate.
Reds take some adjustment, but are best when paired with hearty food. “For example, accompanying a glass with the classic steak cooked rare, which might help balance the tannin of the wine, making everything harmonious,” suggests Scianna.
You may not understand the wine menu, but rest assured that someone who works for the restaurant will. Lillard explains that the wine on restaurant menus is usually picked specifically to complement the food items listed as well. “This doesn’t even have to be for a high-end restaurant or anything like that,” says Lillard. “This could be for your local spot; they generally have a pretty good idea of what goes well together.”
This is why knowing your food order helps, too. Lillard says to give as much information as you can about what you like and even explain why you like the particular dish you’re ordering. You could also mention wines you’ve tried previously and what you did or did not like about those. All of this will give context to the server (or whoever at the restaurant is recommending wine) so that you’ll end up with a glass of something you’ll actually enjoy.
You may be trying to impress your date with your wine knowledge, but trust me you’ll look a lot smarter being open to learning than bullshitting your way through the order. The same applies if you’re doing Valentine’s Day at home and need a wine pairing. Go specifically to a wine shop so you can describe your planned menu to an expert and they can lead you to a wine that will impress based on taste, not price.
Another pitfall of trying to impress when ordering wine could be how much you decide to spend on it. Ordering the “finest bottle” bottle on the menu sounds cool until you taste it and realize you just spent hundreds on a drink neither you or your date can finish due to its dryness.
“Once, a high alcohol content was synonymous with good wine, while today our lifestyle requires less alcoholic content, but equally pleasant wines,” says Scianna.
On that note, Lillard adds that wines sold by the glass at restaurants are usually the “crowd pleasers” that most people would enjoy so you’re better off ordering a glass than a full bottle. And since you’re already comfortable asking your server for recommendations, don’t be afraid to ask for a sample of a wine before you get the glass.
Finally, if you’re truly stumped on what to order off the wine menu, Lillard says, “Bubbles are always fun.” And that doesn’t always mean champagne. You could try Proseco, rosé, or any other sparkling wine. Ordering wine should only enhance your dining experience, not make it more nerve-racking. Now that you’ve got these tips in your back pocket, all I can say is cheers, and happy Valentine’s Day, my fellow wine beginners.