People are constantly asking me for "safe bets" to order in restaurants when they can't figure out what's on the wine list or when there are too many choices.
I have some bad news for you: I can't answer that question. And neither can any other wine dork out there.
Only YOU can answer that question because your palate is unique to you and things will taste delicious to you that taste like crap to me and vice versa. What I can do is offer the following tips:
- Cut a hole in the box...oops. Sorry. That's from another list (some of you will get this Justin Timberlake reference).
- Scan the list and see if there is anything you recognize on it. If you see something you know and you want to be safe, order it. If you want to make me happy, don't order it and try something you've never had. Then tell me about it.
- Get a sample if you're not sure. Usually the staff is happy to oblige. Don't wuss out -- the servers don't mind and would rather have you try and buy then say, "oh, I'll just have water." Trust me, I've waited tables and was happy to offer a taste if we had an open bottle (if it's by the glass you can easily get a taste, by the bottle you may have to take a chance so use the tips below to get more info on the wine).
- If you see nothing you know, look for a grape that you DO know you like -- Zinfandel? Sauvignon Blanc? Sangiovese? Viognier? Then ASK the staff what it tastes like. If they waffle on the answer, refer to #3 or use the descriptors from this site to help you: Does it taste like minerals? Like dirt? Like fruit? Is it sweet? Sour? Is it tart? Like a barnyard? Get an answer before ordering.
- Don't fear the blend. Don't fear European wines. Just ask. Or better yet, when you try an Italian wine that you like, write it down and reference it before you go out to an Italian restaurant. Please don't order house Chianti -- at that point, you may as well have grape juice.
- If the wine list is complicated -- take a chance. Order a Moshifilero (Greek, white and light), a Spanna (the Nebbiolo grape, the very same that is in expensive Barolos), an Albarino (delicious coastal Spanish white), or a Saumur (Cab Franc based reds or Chenin Blanc based whites). Work with your waiter to figure it out, and refer to #3 to prevent wimping out.
- You know, this is probably sacrilegious of me, but I don't care. If I go to a place where the wine list is atrocious (it's all grocery store brands and they are all bad brands) or it's really limited (chain restaurants), I just get the Vodka Collins or the beer. If you don't drink that stuff, just order a lemonade. It will still be better than ordering the bad stuff. Blech.
Note: I did not say "know Robert Parker," "know the Wine Spectator," "know your brother who is a real wine guy," "know your boss because he has an expensive cellar...." You get the point. If you like White Zin, drink it unabashedly. No shame there.