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Ask a Sommelier: Wine Ordering Tips

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[Photograph: Alpha on Flickr]

It's often a little intimidating to face a big wine list and an expert sommelier, so many of us just point to something safe on the list. But is that the tastiest wine for the meal we ordered? Is there something else we might enjoy more? We asked a few sommeliers from around the country for their tips on ordering wine. What questions are helpful to ask? What information is important to share? What should we say to a sommelier in order to have a more enjoyable restaurant wine experience?

Here's what they had to say.

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Lauren Friel of Oleana in Cambridge, MA

"First of all, it's important to remember that everyone started at the beginning. That expert sommelier had her first sip of wine once, too, and there was a time when she didn't know Beaujolais from Bordeaux. So ask questions! There's no such thing as a silly one. More than anything else, it's helpful when our guests are able to tell us about something they've had before that they've really enjoyed. Use those smartphones to your advantage! Take pictures/notes/videos/whatever of the bottles you really dig, and don't be afraid to show them to us. You might not recognize that all of the wines you love happen to come from an Alpine climate or be made with lots of new oak, but we will, and it will help us guide you toward something delicious. Trust us to make it happen, too. Let yourself go on a little adventure. I love it when guests are open to trying a grape or a region they've never heard of before. When they trust me to swap Trousseau for Pinot Noir or Scheurebe for Sauvignon Blanc, it's more fun for everyone."—Lauren Friel (Oleana)

"The more information you can provide the sommelier with, the better they can customize their recommendations for you. The key information is: what have you enjoyed in the past, and what type of wine or part of the world you are looking to explore. The last and the most important question: how much do you want to spend. For many guests this is one of the most daunting subjects to bring up but it is also one of the most crucial pieces of information. We want to help you find a wine that over-delivers and provides great satisfaction and great value in whatever price point you are comfortable with. The easiest and most discreet ways of passing this information off is to simply point at a price and say, 'I'm looking for something along these lines.'"—Sabato Sagaria MS (The Little Nell Hotel)

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Thomas Pastuszak of The NoMad in NYC [Photo: Nathan Rawlinson]

"The more information you give us, the better; so don't be shy (most of us don't bite)! For example: 'I love Pinot Noir from the US but want to learn about Burgundy, and want to spend $X—what would you recommend?' Or how about: 'I'd like a dry white wine, and love Sauvignon Blanc, but want to try something new.' We're here to take you somewhere new through the glass, whether through familiar words or flavors, and the best way for us to take you on that journey is by having you tell us exactly what you've loved or hated in the past!"—Thomas Pastuszak (The NoMad)

"I'd like to preface this by saying that no one should ever be afraid of a sommelier. We're just normal people doing our jobs like the rest of society. If a sommelier makes you feel uncomfortable or inferior in any way he or she is not doing their job very well. It's much easier to find a wine a customer is going to enjoy when they are relaxed and honest about what style of wine they're looking for, what particular grapes they're fond of, whether they want to try something new or stick with something familiar and what price range they are comfortable in. I am happy to find you a wine regardless of how much or how little you want to spend."—Davis Smith (Acquerello)

"Communicate your preferences without apprehension; tastes in wine are no different than tastes in clothes, cars or perfumes. They are extremely personal. I think it is our job as somms to help establish which wine from our list suits your mood or preference. If a particular guest seems to not know what they are looking for, then I start by asking them if they would like something they are familiar with or would they like to try something new. Then I take it from there."—Andres Loaiza (Aria)

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"The most important thing you can tell any wine professional is what you generally drink, because this will give us a firm idea of the styles of wine you like. If you use descriptors (i.e. 'fruity', 'crisp', 'smooth', 'dry'), this forces us to be a little interpretive, but listing wines you've enjoyed in the past is concrete, even if that's a general category like 'Rioja' or 'Zinfandel'. Let's say you want to drink Pinot Noir tonight. If you tell me you drink Malbec generally, or really enjoyed some Beaujolais last week, or that you mostly drink white wine, all this data is going to shape what sort of Pinot Noir I'm going to suggest for you.

If I pour you a taste of the bottle I've selected for you and you really don't like it, well, then I've just screwed up at my job, and you should let me know so that we can re-tool and find you something else. Don't ever feel like you can't disagree with your sommelier's selection. Our job is to get you wine you want to drink, end of story.

Dating Pro-tip: if you're taking someone out on a fancier date to a place that has larger wine list and a sommelier, call ahead and leave a note with the reservationist telling them how much you'd like to spend. One less thing to worry about!"—Morgan Harris (Corkbuzz)

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Vajra Stratigos of Fifth Group Restaurants in Atlanta

"It's not so much about the right questions to ask. Guests should be stating facts and the sommelier should be asking the questions to get information. Say, 'I like wines like this or that, peppery wines, fruity wines, dry wines, California wines, etc.' This is the conversation that helps a sommelier guide you to the right wine."—Vajra Stratigos (Fifth Group Restaurants)

"Learn about your own palate. Do you like wines that are fruity, or do you like wines that are more acidic? Do you like heavy or light wines? And be adventurous, yet honest. Try something new, but speak up if you don't like the wine that was recommended. Sommeliers just want you to enjoy the wines that you are drinking."—Caroline Styne (Lucques)

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