How to Order Wine and Not Look Like an Idiot

By | Feb.27.17 | Client Relations, Daily Dispatch, Passions, Skills


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

Bull Garlington is an award-winning writer. His latest book, "The Full English," is a hilarious travel memoir about his family's trip to the U.K. His company, Creative Writer PRO, provides enterprise-level content for small and medium-size businesses. His previous title, "Death by Children!," was IndieFab’s 2013 Humor Book of the Year. He is a co-author of the popular foodie compendium "The Beat Cop’s Guide to Chicago Eats." He prefers Balvenie's DoubleWood 12 Year Scotch and makes a mean gumbo.

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3 Responses to “How to Order Wine and Not Look Like an Idiot”

  1. Vino
    27 February 2017 at 9:10 am #

    You make the act of ordering wine sound like planning an attack behind enemy lines, something for Delta Force or SEAL Team 6.

    The sommelier is NOT your enemy. The sommelier’s job — and passion — is to help you enjoy the whole experience, not torture you.

    A better plan is to know what the restaurant’s specialties are. Then decide if you’re going to drink more than one bottle of wine at dinner. CALL the restaurant and ask to speak to the sommelier. He or she can probably smell BIG TIP, regardless of the price of the wine. Then go and meet the sommelier to cement the deal.

    This works. Really.

  2. Midori
    27 February 2017 at 1:12 pm #

    Do clients actually judge their attorneys based on how good their associates are at picking wine? I feel like I would wonder if they are overpaying the juniors…

  3. Bull Garlington
    27 February 2017 at 5:00 pm #


    You haven’t met my sommelier.


    The fourteen seconds of research I did for this humor column suggest that such judgmental behavior is not outside the realm of silly stories about ordering wine. Also, I wish some firm, any firm, would overpay their juniors . . .