How to Navigate an Extensive Wine List

Advice from a professional sommelier

You're out to dinner at a big ticket restaurant: The server fills your glass with the anticipated glass of fine sparkling water and hands you a three-ring binder with a 45-page wine list. You're in the mood for a high acid white (pages 12-20), followed by a light red (pages 22-30) to go with those crispy sweetbreads you were eyeing. You've narrowed your wine search to 18 pages, and then the server says, "Are you ready to order?" Your dinner companions are pleasantly arguing about "must-see" independent films, and you're stuck decoding a vertical of Barbera. How does one navigate such an extensive wine list? Here are three helpful suggestions.

1. Know what you like. Do you prefer more fruit or earth in a red? Are you partial to oaky whites, or not-so-oaky whites? Do you always begin a meal with Champagne or are you willing to experiment with a Gran Reserva Cava or vintage Franciacorta? Before you walk into a restaurant, devise a game plan.

2. Ask for help. You don't have to speak to a sommelier — some good restaurants don't have one, but most will have a token "wine dork." This person could be the manager of the restaurant, the bartender who buys the wine, or a server who has an obvious crush on Riesling.

3. Don't be afraid to experiment. Many diners buy that bottle of Pinot Noir from the same, familiar producer because they know it's a pretty good deal at $75 — that bottle is a safe choice, easy. But risk is fun, and wine is about taking risks.

So the next time you come face-to-face with a behemoth wine list just remember — know what you like, but be willing to ditch the plan, trust a stranger, and try something new.

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