My F&W
quick save (...)

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


Add A Comment

    Add a Comment

    See our terms
    You must be logged in to comment. or
    You might also like
    The Dish
    Receive delicious recipes and smart wine advice 4x per week in this e-newsletter.
    The Wine List Weekly pairing plus best bottles to buy.
    F&W Daily One sensational dish served fresh every day.

    Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.

    Join celebrity chefs, renowned winemakers and epicurean insiders at the culinary world's most spectacular weekend, the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen, June 19-21.