Delving into the wine list at a restaurant can definitely be intimidating. With endless regions, countless producers, and an infinite number of bottles, ordering a bottle you’ll actually enjoy can feel like a shot in the dark. We took it to the pros and asked 10 sommeliers across the country which wines are generally a safe bet to order on any list.
“On big over the top lists, I usually gravitate towards the Austrian section. These wines are usually on the list because the sommeliers love them, not to gouge the tourists.” – Eric Railsback, Wine Director, Mason Pacific
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“The wines where there are multiple vineyards or vintages from the same producer. It most likely means that the sommelier really likes this producer and invested quite a bit of money into getting as many wines as possible because they are very excited about it. And if you look at that producer, there is often a large diversity offered in terms of pricing also. So, identify that producer and see if you can see it in different parts of the list, not only the fancy and expensive appellations.” – Michael Engelmann, Wine Director at The Modern & Cafés at MoMa, Untitled and Studio Café at The Whitney
“I’d say a safe bet on an intimidating wine list would be something red Burgundy from the Cote Chalonnaise, or a solid Chablis. I find that the Cote Chalonnaise produces extremely approachable and charming wine that doesn’t require much time in the bottle, and Chablis can be a real crowd pleaser in the category of the dry, crisp, mineral-driven style.” – Nathan Lithgow, Sommelier, Sauvage
“I would say Sicily. For example, an Italian-heavy wine list can get very intimidating… if you don’t know anything about wine, you can get some great value from Sicily. Etna Rosso, for example, is like Pinot Noir and very versatile with food.” – Rachael Lowe, Beverage Director, Spiaggia
“Depending on the list that you’re looking at, go for the regions that are a bit lesser known. If you’re in a French restaurant and you want Burgundy, look to see if they have a selection of Cru Beaujolais — usually a much lesser cost than their northern neighbors, and often complex, elegant, and quite memorable. On an Italian-dominant list, check out their Sicilian selections. Some of the more aromatic and finessed wines come from Mt. Etna.” – Ellie Bufkin, Assistant Wine Director, Maialino
“With a massive list, I usually ask for help from the sommelier; they know what’s on the list and what you shouldn’t miss. Regions that I find offer your safest choices for quality tend to be northern Italy, Loire Valley, France, and Mosel, Germany.” – Kimberly Prokoshyn, Head Sommelier, Rebelle
“This is a hard one… Champagne is always a safe bet because most producers are trying to make a consistent product every year. If the list is intimidating, the establishment should have someone on hand to help and you should ask for it. Another good tip is when looking at white wines, unless you know the producer and vintage, ordering the younger wines can be safer.” – Joshua Thomas, Wine Director, Octavia and Frances
“In my world, I sell a ton of Italian wine, but Italian wines are a dialect within a language that very few people understand. If you want a safe bet, first you have to know what you like, what you are comfortable with. If you come into one of my restaurants and tell me you love Russian River Pinot Noir, I am going to try and help you find the closest Italian wine to that flavor profile. If a list is intimidating to you, first decide what your comfortable budget is – almost like in Vegas, how much would you not be bummed to lose on something you didn’t like — and then look for grapes, places, producers that you have had before and like. The only safe bet is one that you don’t regret.” – Jon McDaniel, Beverage Director, Acanto, The Gage, The Dawson, Beacon Tavern, Coda di Volpe