Secrets from Sommeliers

If the thought of being presented with a multi-page wine list literally drives you to drink with its scary-sounding words like “appellation,” “biodynamic” and “decantation,” have no fear — you’re not alone.

click to enlarge Dep's Fine Wines
Dep's Fine Wines

If the thought of being presented with a multi-page wine list literally drives you to drink with its scary-sounding words like “appellation,” “biodynamic” and “decantation,” have no fear — you’re not alone. Even the pros know there’s always something new to learn. After all, comedian George Carlin once asked, “What wine goes with Captain Crunch?”

That’s where our local experts come in. We gathered them here to give you some dos and don’ts for ordering wine out, whether there’s help or you’re left to your own devices.

  1. Do utilize the wine professional, and do trust their judgment. “The sommelier and the professional service staff are the folks that know best which wines off of a thoughtfully selected wine menu will make the chef’s food even better,” says Mary Horn, vice president of fine wine sales and education at the Heidelberg Distributing Company. Zach Eidson of Oakley Wines adds: “In my experience, the most wine-knowledgeable guests use the sommelier more than the novice wine consumer.”
  2. Do ask questions. “I take pride in knowing that I’ve prepared the staff for any question that may arise,” says Evan Abrams, wine director at Jean-Robert’s Table. “Ask questions because you’ll never know unless you ask for an answer.”
  3. Do drink what you like. “Since what we all find ‘tasty’ is different, then the first rule I have with wine is, ‘Drink what you like,’” says Jeff Hickenlooper, sales manager at Vintner Select. “Don’t be swayed by arbitrary scores, advertising or a notion that the only real wine is big, rich reds that will stain your teeth. Also, price does not always translate to quality.” 
  4. But do experiment. “Be a ‘Wine Explorer,’” says Amy Neyer, wine educator from “It’s easy to fall into a habit of ordering the same wine time and time again. There’s a comfort to knowing what you like. However … then you miss the chance to taste some wonderful wines that offer some of the same properties as your standbys, but offer something a little more authentic or unusual. Or, in some cases, provide better value.”
  5. Do know how much you feel comfortable spending, and don’t be embarrassed to tell your server. “Know your price point. And tell me,” says Daniel Souder, restaurant manager and wine and beverage director at The Presidents Room at The Phoenix. “Unless I know your budget, I can’t narrow it. Don’t be embarrassed; I chose all of those wines on that list for a reason. I stand behind all of them, and some of the least expensive selections on the list are the ones I would be most jazzed about you ordering.” 
  6. Don’t ever try to be a know-it-all. Even the pros don’t do that. “I have been serving and cultivating wine lists for almost 15 years and there is always more to learn,” says Will Chambers, general manager and wine director at Obscura. “Wine can produce some snobby character in people, and there is nothing more unattractive.”
  7. Do start small. “For wine newbies, I recommend choosing a restaurant with a diverse wine-by-the-glass menu and order something you’ve never heard of or crave to try from a place you would love to visit,” says Kathy Merchant, DWS, certified specialist of wine and Cincinnati wine educator at The American Wine School. “Everyone at the table gets to match their own wine and food selections. No harm no foul — even if you hate the wine, it was only one glass!”
  8. Do find a place you like and become a regular. “Getting to know a regular guest’s wine tastes well enough to be able to suggest a new wine to them with confidence is such a great feeling,” says Megan Kelly, beverage manager at the Metropole. Also, frequenting a joint and building a relationship with the staff might just get you the occasional perk. “Really engage with the wine guy,” says Bryant Phillips, bartender at The Brass Tap at U-Square. “You have no idea how far that goes towards getting you an ounce or two of the bottle that chef and I have open in the cellar.” 
  9. Do get out your map. “What grows together goes together,” says Kevin Ohlin Hart of local wine distributor wineCRAFT. “Think about pairing wines that are from the same area — Italian food with Italian wine, seafood with wine grown in coastal regions. Of course you can get more specific, but this works well as a starting point.”
  10. If you get a wine you absolutely hate? Do send it back. “A great sommelier or wine professional should take the bottle back and make note of what it was that you did not like,” Hart says. “However, sending back bottle after bottle is bad form. Only send the bottle back if you truly feel they totally missed the mark and you feel it will negatively impact your dining experience.” ©

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