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How to Order Wine and Not Look Like an Idiot

By Bull Garlington

You’re at Fancy Restaurant with Super Important Client and the senior partner. There are three forks, two spoons, four glasses and a tiny little dish with a tiny little knife that you assume is for the table elf.

You’re reading the menu, discreetly typing Un verre d’eau, vou singe qui n’est pas très sophistiqué! into Google Translate, when the client (the guy your boss has specifically forbid you to talk to) asks you to order the wine. Merde!

Bonjour, Dr. Smug

The sommelier drops the wine list on the table in front of you with a resounding boom. It looks like a dictionary. It’s in French. You scan a page while your heart packs its bags and your spleen shoots itself in the head.

The sommelier clears his throat curtly into his smug little fist — un bastarde! — and the room darkens with a glowering gloom. The dinner hasn’t even started and you’re about to ruin everything because you drink beer.

You point your little finger at the name of a bottle, look up at Dr. Smug, and say, “How the heck did you guys get your hands on a 2005 Chateau-Grillet? A good voignier is like a little drop of apricot on your tongue. It’s a great start.”

Then you marvel as your client shoots a discreet look at your boss as if to say, “This one, mon cheri, is a keeper.”

This Is Work So Work It

You can do this because you knew you were going to Fancy Restaurant and you stayed up all night studying “Wine for Dummies” like you were preparing for war.

But what if they don’t have a Chateau-Grillet? What if you forget your notes?

Here are five solid hacks for fixing your wine game, with a couple thrown in by Steve Morgan, sommelier for Chicago’s prestigious Formento’s, who knows his grapes.

Do Wine Recon

You get the invite a couple of weeks out so do some reconnaissance, soldier. Fancy Restaurant has a bar. Go there. Go early. Order a nice cocktail, pay with cash, tip 50 percent. Tell the bartender exactly what you’re up against. If the beverage manager or the sommelier is there, they might take a couple of minutes to give you some pointers on their wine list. TIP THEM, TOO.

Added value: When you’re at the dinner, greet the sommelier by name. Introduce your esteemed guest of honor and your partner. Then shut up.

Gather Intelligence

If you can’t make it to the restaurant beforehand, that’s OK. “Being a James Bond of a wine list these days has become easier and easier,” says Morgan. “Look at the online profiles of the restaurant and sommelier if you can find them; interviews, Facebook, etc., all allow a peek into the inner psyche of the somme. What’s she excited about wine-wise? What different wine publications and people does she follow?”


Modest research indicates there are nearly 4 billion different wines. You can’t know them all. So don’t try. Go to Wine Folly’s beginner’s guide and get some basic training. Pick three reds, three whites and a port, all in about a $60 to $90 range. Memorize them. Even if Fancy Restaurant doesn’t have them, you can look pretty suave when you say, “I was hoping for a ’99 Chateau Simon Palette Rouge. Have you got anything in that range?” You just impressed the wine guy and let him know your budget.

The Wine-churian Candidate

Part of stalking the sommelier is to find out where their taste comes from. Find out where they’ve worked before. Find nearby restaurants with a similar wine game. This guy has spent decades spitting good wine into a bucket. He lives for wine. All you need is a single word, the name of a single label or vinter to get him on your side. “If you name drop restaurants with wine programs that excite the sommelier as well as producers, you can then set the sommelier up to do the work for you,” explains Morgan. “They’ll want to impress you. Maybe he’ll even sell you something that is rare and make a huge deal out of it. You won’t even need to know what the wine is.”

The Double Agent

The one key that opens all locks is money. When the sommelier drops off the wine list, he’ll probably give you a couple of minutes to decide. Go to the bathroom. Duck into the bar, request the sommelier and discreetly introduce him to Ulysses S. Grant. “Tell him a price point and to take care of the evening’s selection and make you look good,” Morgan advises. “It’s a tried-and-true method that will let the somm know you want to impress and also give him the push to ham it up and make you look great.”

It also means he’s working for you now. If you’d just said, “Hey buddy, what’s YOUR favorite?” there was a 1,000 percent probability he’d point to a 1995 Domain Leroy Musigny Grand Cru. And you might as well have said, “I’ll have a used 2006 Toyota Camry” because that bottle goes for a cool five grand.

Do you have a better strategy? Did I leave something off? Let me know in the comments below. 

Related: Table Etiquette for the 21st Century

Illustration ©

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BULL Garlington Bull Garlington

Analog Attorney columnist Bull Garlington is an award-winning author, columnist and public speaker. He is the author of the books “Fat in Paris,” “The Full English,” “Death by Children” and “The Beat Cop’s Guide.” He prefers South American literature, classic jazz, Partagas 1945s, a decent Laphroaig, and makes a mean chicken and andouille gumbo. Follow him @bull_garlington.

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