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Ordering Wine in a Restaurant: An Expert's Advice

A top sommelier shares his insider tips.

If the question is, "What are the best strategies for ordering wine in a restaurant?" then it's no surprise that a good sommelier will have the answers. With that in mind, writer W. Blake Gray got in touch with Peter Palmer, the wine director for well-known San Francisco seafood restaurant Farallon. Here are his insider tips for navigating a restaurant wine list.

Q: What should people look for on a wine list?

A: Ideally, the wine director has put together a list that reflects the food. At Farallon, our menu is probably 70 percent fish. We have a page of Cabernet, but we also have two-and-a-half pages of Pinot Noir, which, in terms of red wine, has a better flavor profile for fish. Look at the list with the food in mind.

Q: What should you ask the sommelier?

A: Get the sommelier involved early. Then, be specific. Say what you're eating. Mention a price range. Don't be embarrassed by it. A lot of people think it's taboo to talk about money at the table, but it's one of the most important things to talk about, if the diners aren't too uncomfortable.

Q: So, whites with fish, reds with meat?

A: The preparation is key. Lighter red wines like Pinot can be perfectly appropriate with fish that's paired with mushrooms or red wine sauces. Whites with meat are a little less appropriate: The flavor and tannin levels of full-bodied red wines work more successfully with the richness and texture of beef. Pork and veal can go with white wines, though.

Q: How should you describe the types of wines you like?

A: State a specific label or winery you like. Words such as "dry" or "big" can be very subjective.

Q: Let's say you really want to order a specific wine, but it might not go with your entire meal—what should you do?

A: If you see a wine that you've been dying to try, ask the sommelier to help plan your meal. For instance, let's say you want a big Cabernet but you also want to order a platter of raw oysters. While we decant the Cabernet, we can recommend something more appropriate to go with the first course, like a glass of Champagne.

Q. What should you do if you want to bring your own wine?

A: Always call the restaurant first. Don't just show up with a bunch of wine and ask them to bend over backward for you. And expect to pay a corkage fee.

Q. If you order wine, how much more than the retail price should you expect to pay?

A: Our usual markup is about 2.85 times wholesale, which is pretty standard for a restaurant of our caliber. [Retail prices are typically 1.5 times wholesale.] Very inexpensive wines we may mark up a little more; more expensive items we don't mark up as much. In fact, some cult wines you can see at retail for more than what we charge.

Q: What if you don't like the wine you ordered?

A: Make that clear. You should say, "This is not what I was looking for." If it was a recommendation from the sommelier, it should be removed, and you should not be made to feel uncomfortable. The sommelier should get you a wine that you enjoy.

Published July 2007
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