08/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You Have The Wine List, Now What?

You have reservations at a new four-star restaurant. Your boss/mother-in-law/client is impressed. Then the waiter hands you a wine list that weighs 20 pounds and looks likes an old unabridged dictionary. "Would you care to order the wine now?" he asks. Everyone is staring at you in absolute silence. In fact, it seems as if the whole restaurant is waiting for you to order.

Now what?

Do you order the most expensive bottle on the list (something like "Screaming Ego")? Or do you close your eyes and throw a mental dart at the list? Do you ask for advice? And if you do ask, will the waiter use this as a chance to unload that overpriced bottle that's been gathering dust in the cellar? What if you never heard of any of them? Is Macon Lugny red or white? And Dolcetto d'Alba-- isn't that an opera you once dozed through? Will everyone think you're a wimp if you play it safe and order a martini or beer?

You don't have to be a novice to have problems ordering wine. Many people who know a good deal about wine have had bad experiences with restaurant wine lists. So, the next time you're handed the wine list keep these things in mind:

Plan Ahead.
If this is an important dinner, speak with the manager or sommelier to discuss your dinner plan when you make the reservation. Call ahead and get a copy of the wine list faxed to you, or get there ten minutes early so you can read the list. Some restaurants now have their wine list posted on their website, so you can get an idea of what to order.

Ask for the wine list and menu at the same time, so you can pair the wine with the food.
If there are four or more people, you will need two or more bottles of wine--figure on a half bottle per person. Many restaurants have a respectable list of half bottles as well, so that you can order a half bottle of white for that one person who insists on ordering flounder in a steak house. Or order an interesting wine by the glass, and, if you like it, order a bottle. But be careful about wine by the glass. The bottle could have been opened two weeks ago. Ask the server if he would kindly open a fresh bottle for you.

Forget about the old rules of red wine with meat and white wine with fish.
Today, people often drink reds like Pinot Noir or Merlot with salmon, tuna, swordfish and other meaty fishes. On the other hand, you can also drink white with meat dishes. Big, buttery, oaky California Chardonnays can easily stand up to a veal chop (and maybe even to a steak!)

Consider how the food is prepared.
Plain grilled chicken is very different from grilled chicken smothered in chile-jerk-chipotle sauce. So, rather than pair the wine with the protein, pair the wine with the sauce, seasoning or dominant flavor of the dish. Wine drunk by itself tastes different than it does with food. Wine acts on food, like a spice does, and the fats, proteins and sugars in food change the taste of the wine. The most important thing to remember is the goal of balance. The wine shouldn't overpower the food, nor should the food overpower the wine.

Go with the restaurant's theme.
If 90% of the wine list is Italian, don't order that one bottle of California wine they've stuck in at the end. One good rule is to think of geography--try pairing German Pork Schnitzel with German Riesling, Pacific Salmon with Oregon Pinot Noir.

Try a slightly sweet (off-dry) wine to cool off spicy food.
Sweetness in a wine takes the edge off spice, so slightly sweet wines go well with Thai, Mexican and Indian foods. To cool off your Ceviche appetizer of Shrimp and Scallops with Serrano Chile, try Riesling.

Stick to the names you can pronounce.
A tipsy business acquaintance of mine once had a whole table of people laughing when he ordered a bottle of "Pinot Gringo" when he meant to say Pinot Grigio. And at an upscale Italian restaurant, the sommelier worked hard to keep a straight face when an executive tried to remember the name of a wine that he had previously enjoyed. "Bolero," he shouted, when he meant to say "Barolo." But if you know how to pronounce the names of some really obscure wines, you can get a great value and a great tasting experience. The best bargains on the list are often the wines that are hardest to pronounce. So, order Gewürztraminer or Aglianico if you can pronounce them!

Don't be intimidated by the sommelier or wine waiter.
Fortunately, the days of the sneering older man with a silver "tastevin" hanging from his neck are gone. Today, you are likely to see a woman or a 25- year old as your wine server. The wine waiter can be your ally. Discuss what you like or don't like and, unless you are trying to impress someone, mention your price category.

If you ask the waitstaff for advice, narrow your choices down first.
Then ask the server, "which would you prefer with the Porterhouse, Truffled Mashed Potato and Cipollini Onions, the Merlot or the Syrah?" Some restaurants offer tasting menus paired with wine for each course, taking the work out of it.

Finally, don't worry about "wine speak."
This language was invented by insecure wine experts who want to show that they know more about wine than everyone else. Making wine may involve science, but drinking wine is art appreciation!