The wine list, sir?

Wine lists can be intimidating. Depending on the establishment, they can be one-page sheets or thick, multi-page books. If your dining companions ask you to look the list over and suggest something, how do you decide on a wine that suits the occasion?

It is especially difficult if the list contains a large number of wines. A regular wine list can about 250 wines ranging in price from about $20 to $100.
Then there's a captain's reserve list of more expensive, rare wines up to $600.

"No one should ever be afraid of a wine list," says Erik Springer, a wine director for a large restaurant. Springer is a professional sommelier with a simple philosophy: "Wine should be enjoyed." He suggests starting with two basic factors: what wine or wines you most enjoy, and what dishes your table is ordering. "One of the most important things is to remember what you like and then go from there," he said. In other words, look the list over for the labels you recognize and know you like.

A wine list sometimes follows tradition by dividing wines into classic groupings of varietals and blends. "If you know and enjoy a certain varietal, then look further within that group," Springer suggests. You might discover a new wine that you enjoy. Plus, you're likely to appear wine savvy to your dining companions. But don't make the mistake of ordering only what you enjoy. "Don't be afraid to ask others in your group what they like," Springer said.


Having gained confidence by recognizing some labels on the list and knowing your guests' tastes, next find out what they're ordering. Selecting a wine in a restaurant is not so much about knowledge of specific wines as it is about wine and food pairing. The old standby of white wine with fish and red wine with meat still works. You can hardly go wrong with a fine Cabernet and New York strip steak.

But menus have become more diverse these days, and wine lists contain wines from around the world. This opens up all kinds of exciting possibilities. Let's say someone at your table orders seared Ahi tuna and someone else orders New York strip. What wine could possibly go with both? Zinfandel, actually. Springer said it's a great wine for both those dishes.


Another versatile wine he often recommends is Pinot Noir. It's what he calls a crossover wine, one that can go with a seafood dish such as scallops, as well as with steak. Speaking of versatility, Champagne and other sparkling wines can be an outstanding choice to enjoy with your meal.

"They are actually wine," Springer said. "They shouldn't be just for celebrations. "They're surprisingly versatile with food."


Springer encourages customers to look over the reserve list, even if the wines on it are out of their price range. "It's great reading," he said. "You might see a specific wine from a certain region that sounds interesting but is too expensive. You can go back to our regular list and look for the same type of wine from that same region. Chances are it will have similar characteristics but at a less expensive price."

One final piece of advice: Let your budget be your guide. Don't order a wine more expensive than you want just to avoid looking cheap to the wait staff. Wine professionals such as Springer respect their guests, no matter what wine is ordered. After all, if it's on the list, it's because the restaurant thinks it's worth ordering and enjoying.