How to Sound Smart When Talking About Wine

Staff Writer
Want to impress your dinner guests with your wine knowledge? Here's how to order like a pro

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

How to order wine, with five easy tips.

Offering little actionable information and arranged according to the whims of a newly acquired sommelier or wine distributor, restaurant wine lists seldom do much to help the customer. Are they Weapons of Mass Confusion, or We’re-So-Cool Intimidation? Yet if you know how to navigate them, this negative can be easily converted to a positive, enhancing your reputation as a sophisticated and knowledgeable diner, even with wine expertise two steps above none whatsoever.

You know the scene: a business dinner, with the boss, the head of sales and the folks from finance, and those oh-how-badly-we-want-them prospective clients. Though you’re not (yet) top dog at the table, you have been smart enough to mention wine once or twice when chatting with the fearless leader. So when Mr. Big hands you the wine list and says, "Why don’t you pick, Martinez?" your compadres don’t know whether to smirk — they sure don’t want the list, aka hot potato — or be impressed that you’ve been given the nod.

Either your stomach flips with the realization you’re about to be found out as a wine fraud, or, if you know the five keys, you grab the opportunity with gusto.

One: It’s business, so you do want to impress the clients.

Two: It’s business, so someone else, i.e., not you, is paying the tab.

Three: Don’t get crazy. That $400 bottle may appeal to your inner BMOC, but this is no place to display your personal problems.

Four: It’s not about the "perfect" choice. Your wine selection won’t make or break the evening.

Five: The strategy is simple. Choose a distinctive wine at a higher than expected price point.

Some of these names look familiar, but.... hey, can’t we all just have a beer? Steady, now. Don’t get flaky. Ask what people are eating. If most of your tablemates mention meat or something equally hearty, you’re set. It’s red. Don’t fool with varietals you’re not familiar with. If you don’t know a brunello from a barolo, don’t pick either one. Forget the wines you’re unsure of and go straight to the cabernet sauvignons, preferably from California or Washington State.

Everyone (almost) who loves wine loves cab. Washington and California versions feature good alcohol and lots of easy-to-appreciate fruit. Why pick something unknown when you can so easily zero in on a wine with near universal appeal? Don’t know the producers? Who cares? Look at the prices. Pick something 25 percent or 30 percent above what you should probably spend. Close the list and tell the waiter your choice.

Should there be a preponderance of fish or lobster eaters in the group, ditch the cabernet and look at the whites. Sauvignon blanc is wonderful, unless you don’t like green pepper and acid — and many don’t; riesling can be stunning, but a rookie may not know if it’s sweet or dry; unknown whites can be too floral or minerally. Forget the fancy stuff and pick a top-tier chardonnay from Australia, Chile, or South Africa. You’ll get a clean, not too oaky, not too sweet or dry, and not overly pricey wine that works well with almost any fish or fowl. And there’s always pinot noir, a wine that pleases most everyone eating most anything, the standard mixed-menu fallback. Pinots can be pricey but pick from the top half of the price range and you’ll likely land a winner.

So, whether it’s meat, seafood, or duck confit, three slightly too-expensive wines will fill your bill. Half the table won’t know, and the other half will be impressed with the quality of your choice and the confidence with which you made it.

Damn, you’re looking good. It’s my guess the Big Kahuna is going to hand off to you at every dinner. And if the very well wined-and-dined clients sign on the dotted line, those sales and finance folks are going to be wishing they too knew how to handle the hot potato. Building Social Currency 101.

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Jim Laughren, CWE, tongue-in-cheek wine educator, is the author of A Beer Drinker’s Guide to Knowing and Enjoying Fine Wine, available at,, and better bookstores around the country.