How to Order Wine on a Date

Do you know what you're supposed to do when the server shows you the wine bottle at a restaurant? Or how to read a wine list? If you're like most guys, you probably don't, because no one ever teaches this stuff. Check out our easy guide for the how's and why's and it'll be smooth sailing right to the goodnight kiss.

Sledgehammer wine

A recent study found that 9 out of 10 women break things off with a guy after the first date because he looked like a jackass while ordering wine. Okay, I made that up. But it certainly feels like that could be true. First impressions mean the world, and ordering a bottle of wine at dinner is often a guy’s opening salvo. Doing so confidently can make you look and feel like a champ, setting the stage for an evening that unfolds suavely. Failing to do so can set the night’s expectations to awkward and fumbling.

Fortunately, there’s no need to worry. There’s a fairly standard procedure for getting a glass of wine that will go well with your meal—and you don’t have to be a wine snob for it to work. If you want to impress your date and augment the enjoyment of your dinner, simply complete the following objectives.

Do Your Homework

Goal: Get the lay of the land and find out what’s available.

Ordering wine at a restaurant might not be so bad if you weren’t put on the spot. Take the pressure off by finding out as much as you can beforehand. Make your reservation during an off-peak hour so the host or hostess has time to answer some questions about the wine list:

Do you serve wine or is it BYOB?

There’s nothing worse than showing up at a restaurant only to find out that they don’t have a liquor license. Sometimes, you can get a restaurant's wine list off of their website. If you make your selection beforehand from the online wine menu, be sure to mention it when you call. Ask if they can reserve the bottle for you when you call, since wine lists are often outdated and/or seasonal.

If it is BYOB, what is the corkage fee?

Going BYOB, (bring your own bottle), even if the restaurant does serve wine, can be more affordable and less stressful. You avoid the restaurant markup and you can choose a bottle at your leisure without everyone watching you. Just two things to keep in mind: expect to pay a corkage fee of $5 to $25 (ask when you call) and don’t bring a wine that they have on their wine list. You could even get the best of both worlds by bringing an accessible red for the meal and ordering a glass of white for sipping as soon as you sit down.

Will there be a wine specialist available?

Later, I’m going to recommend that you ask to speak to a wine specialist. At some fancy restaurants, there will be a dedicated sommelier (sum-all-ee-ay)—the person who actually put together the wine list and knows it the best. This is ideally who you’d like to speak to. Your next best scenario is talking to the proprietor. If nothing else, it’ll make you look important in front of your date. In some cases, there will be no wine specialist except for your server. It’s best to know this ahead of time. Otherwise, you’ll look pretty goofy asking to speak to the sommelier if there isn’t one.

Get and Read the Wine List

Goal: Establish your price range and narrow down your top choices.

A good wine list will include the price, the producer, the grape variety and/or region and the vintage for each wine. There may also be an item number on the wine list. You can refer to this if you can’t pronounce the name of the wine. Wines labeled NV are nonvintage meaning they are a blend of different wines, and thus can’t have a vintage. Wine snobs will turn their noses up at nonvintage wine, but don’t rule them out. Wine producers make nonvintages for the sake of consistency, meaning that they can often be safer bets than a vintage wine that was made during a climactically shaky year.

how to read a wine list

If the server doesn’t hand you the wine list when you sit down, ask for it right away. You want to order your wine at the same time as your food so you have a glass when you start to eat. Once you get the list, go ahead and crack it open.

Now, this is where many neophytes buckle under pressure. Wine lists are some of the most arcane, inconsistent and sometimes misleading documents on the planet. But don’t let it get to you. Just relax. You’re not a contestant on The Price is Right. You’re not making a make-it-or-break-it intuitive decision here. There are very few “wrong” choices here, and as long as you ask and answer the right questions, you’ll be steered well clear of them.

The worst thing you can do at this point is to snap the wine list shut and say, “We’ll just have the house white.” (More on this later…)

As you’re looking at the wine list, you’re just getting your bearings, surveying the list and narrowing down your choices to two or three bottles of wine. You’ll present these to the server or the wine specialist before making the final decision. But for now, let’s focus on nominating your top candidates.

Here’s what you need to decide:

Red or white?

Nailing this down will eliminate half the wines on the list. The best way to do so is to simply ask your date what she likes. If she hates reds, then you’re in luck, since a good red one is generally harder to choose.

If she doesn’t care, then ask her what she plans on ordering for her meal, then follow these guidelines:

  • Drink white wine with light fish dishes (cod, tilapia, etc.) and shellfish, go with a light-bodied white wine. Safe bets: Pinot Grigio, Sancerre or Sauvignon Blanc (California, South Africa, New Zealand).
  • Drink red wine for light meat and poultry dishes, salmon, meaty dishes, and heavy tomato sauces. Safe choices: California Red Zinfandel, California Pinot Noir, Bourgogne Rouge, Barbera, Dolcetto.
  • Drink white wine or sparkling wine with spicy foods and pastas with a vegetable or cream sauce.

These, of course, are guidelines, not hard and fast rules. Don’t focus too much on the type of meat, since the sauce and preparation matter far more. In general, the lighter the food, the lighter the body of wine you want. Salty and well-seasoned foods pair well with bigger red wines, especially oaked wines. Off-dry or sweet wines are better with spicy food and dessert.

How much should I spend?

Your first instinct may be to choose a wine based on price. Resist it. This has nothing to do with coming off as a cheapskate, since many modestly priced wines are indeed quite good. Likewise, a bottle of wine won’t go well with your meal simply by virtue of being the most expensive on the list.

There’s really no formula for determining how much to spend on wine—just spend what you feel comfortable with. Part of the reason why you’re choosing two or three choices is to communicate to your server what your price range is. Even if they don’t recommend one of the wines you choose, they’ll know what you’re willing to spend.

If you are trying to keep the tab low, avoid ordering the house wine. The house wine is selected for profitability, and is usually a poor value for you and your date. And oftentimes, it’s not even the least expensive on the list. This is true for most U.S. restaurants, with a few exceptions (e.g. wine savvy restaurants in wine regions).

On the other hand, if you are trying to impress by being a big spender, don’t get the most expensive bottle on the standard wine list. Ask for the reserve wine list. But you had better know what you’re doing if you pull this one!

Tip: Unless you want a different type of wine with each course, go with the bottle. A bottle holds four to five glasses which is perfect for a couple to split. Plus, it’s almost always cheaper than buying four or five glasses individually. Dating a lightweight? Ask if they serve half bottles or 375 ml carafes.

How adventurous am I feeling?

The way I see it, there are two main approaches to ordering wine. You can look for a wine that is familiar and accessible, i.e. a safe bet that won’t wrinkle the nose of your picky dinner date. If this is what you’re in for, just look for a wine you’ve had before and order it, or, ask for a similar wine that will pair well with your food.

Or, you can be more adventurous and order something completely foreign to you. To pull this off, you shouldn’t act like you know what you’re doing. You won’t fool anyone. Instead, embrace your ignorance and seek enlightenment. Find something that piques your interest, either because you recognize the producer from an article you read or it just has a funny sounding name. Be forthcoming with your server about your willingness to learn more and experience something new. “I’ve never heard of Frappato. What can you tell me about it?”

Whichever route you choose, your attitude and approach as you plumb for more information will make a better impression on your date than bravado.

Seek Expert Advice from the Wine Specialist

Goal: Leverage the expertise of someone who knows the wine list.

There’s no shame in deferring to the expertise of a specialist when ordering wine. No one expects you to know everything about wine, and you can still come off as confident and in control by asking your server or sommelier the right questions.

To start, ask your server if there’s a wine specialist available. If you’ve done your homework, you already know the answer to this question. If there isn’t someone on hand, then you can ask your server for recommendations. Show your server the three or four choices you were considering and ask them which they would recommend for your meal. If none of the above are good pairs, then your consult will at least know what your price range is.

The sommelier or server will likely have some follow up questions for you. You’ll appear more purposeful and in control if you anticipate these. Before calling the server over, find out what your date likes and does not like, rather than handing off the questions to her as your server asks them. Then, feed this information to the server or sommelier up front. For example, tell them you want a light-bodied white wine that’s not too sweet, or tell them that you hate Chardonnay, etc.

Again, it’s important to adopt the role of an eager student. This isn’t like asking for directions at a gas station—you’re not admitting defeat. You’re seizing an opportunity to become more educated about wine from one of the best sources available. This is how you become a wine connoisseur—by learning.

Surviving the Wine Presentation

Goal: Determine if the bottle of wine has gone bad.

Once you order your bottle of wine, the server will initiate the ritualistic wine presentation. This is the part that makes most of us feel like Adam Sandler when he gets bumped up to first class in The Wedding Singer. Why is he showing me the bottle? What am I supposed to do with this cork? Hey, wise guy, I’m a big kid, I can handle a full glass..

Just about everything that happens during the wine presentation feels esoteric. But it’s really very simple.

The purpose of this is to determine whether the bottle of wine has gone bad, due to improper storage or a damaged cork. This isn’t Baskin Robbins, where you get to sample wine until you find one you like. Nor are you being asked to judge the quality and character of the wine. All you’re doing here is saying “yes” or “no” to the particular bottle of wine that the server is presenting to you.

Here’s what you do:

  • When the server shows you the unopened bottle, examine the label to make sure that it’s what you actually ordered. If so, say “okay,” and/or nod. If not, say so. It’s probably an honest mistake. Between the noise from a crowded restaurant and you mangling the pronunciation of the wine, it’s not uncommon for the server to write down the wrong wine.
  • The server will uncork the bottle and either hand you the cork or lay it on the table. Pick it up and examine it. It should be slightly wet on the end that was in the bottle. If it’s dry and crumbly all the way through, that’s a red flag. If it’s wet and shriveled all the way through, that’s a red flag. Either way, nothing’s a deal breaker yet—you still have to taste the wine. Set the cork down when you’re done looking at it. You don’t have to sniff it. And definitely do not taste it.
  • The server will pour a tiny bit into your glass. Stick your nose in the glass and take a big whiff. If you smell fruity aromas and other pleasant odors, that’s a good sign. If it smells vinegary, moldy or musty, that’s a bad sign.
  • Taste it. Do this regardless if it smells bad. Just take a tiny sip and swallow. Don’t spit. If it tastes corky, musty, vinegary or just plain bad, then say so. Ask the server or your date if they want to taste it and see if they agree that it’s bad. If they do, then you can ask them to take it back. They’ll oblige without question.
  • If it tastes good, just say: “It’s fine.” Set the glass down. The server will pour a full glass for your date and then fill up your glass the rest of the way. Cheers!

That’s all there is to it. Getting a bad bottle of wine is rare, but it happens, so don’t feel guilty about sending it back. If you’re unsure, have your date taste it, since it’ll be even more awkward if they notice that the wine has gone funky after the server has left. You can even have the sommelier taste it.

Once you have a good bottle of wine in your hands, then you’re in the clear. You did it! After going through the ritual of ordering wine at a restaurant a few times, you’ll get a feel for the process and what you can learn. Soon, selecting a bottle of wine for dinner will be as second nature as ordering a steak.

Jack Busch lives in the Pittsburgh area where he writes and edits for fun and money.