Order Wine for the Table Like a Bad*ss Broad
By Carlin Karr | Guest Contributor | @carlinkarr
We all love to drink wine, right? How about ordering wine for the table at a restaurant with a big wine list? No problem. I’m here to help! I’ve been slanging wine for the last decade in style in San Francisco, Boulder, and Denver and am here to give you the dos and don'ts of ordering wine like the bad*ss broad you are. Wine can be tricky to understand; the languages, the varieties, the specifications. I have, some quick pointers to help you be the boss at the table when you suddenly find yourself in charge of ordering for the group.
The Dos of Ordering Wine at a Restaurant
Decide ahead of time how much money you want to spend. This sounds simple but as a sommelier this is the number one piece of information I want to know. It helps narrow down selections and steer the ship. I usually ask this right away for tables larger than four.
Consider how much you are going to drink. Be realistic. One bottle of wine has four full glasses in it. If there are six of you and you are having a multi course meal lasting more than an hour or two, you will need more than one bottle. Take care of the order all at once, so you can enjoy the company of your guests uninterrupted. This is something I always notice high-powered CEOs do, they take care of business right away, so to speak.
Think about your guests. Take a quick poll of the table: one bottle of white, one red? What do we think? Don’t overdo it with input, groups can be indecisive when it comes to ordering wine and food, but do be considerate.
If you are going to have a few bottles, think of progression. Start lighter and build in body and structure (i.e., champagne, then white, then a lighter red like Pinot Noir then a fuller red wine like Syrah, Cabernet or Brunello). You want to crescendo into the full bodied red, not the opposite. Napa Cabernet or Amarone are hard, often impossible, acts to follow. Save those for last. For reference:
Finally, this is the key: Know what you like. Take the time to access resources, like great wine shops, wine books, and wine tastings to learn the basics. Do you like full bodied, new world wines or more austere old world wines? Have multiple (yes, multiple) options; don’t always defer to Pinot Noir or Cabernet. Because first of all, that is idull and YOLO and whatnot. Second, what if you end up at a hipstered-out Spanish tapas bar? Then what? No Pinot or Cab there. You still want to be a bad*ss broad and display that bad*ss palate!
And the Don'ts
After nearly 10 years of serving wine in fine dining and casual dining, I have seen it all. I want to preface this section by saying I truly do not judge, I promise. Wine is confusing; there’s a lot to it. I am not about to walk into a tech convention in Silicon Valley and suddenly know what “beta” is or know how to code, so I would never expect most people to know the ins and outs of the world of wine. After all, that’s my job.
And with that little caveat out of the way, allow me to help a bad*ss sister out and offer some tips on what to avoid.
Don’t solely rely on the word “dry” to describe the wine you like. Here’s the deal: Almost all wine that we drink--with the exception of sweet Riesling, some very over the top heavily-oaked, suped-up Napa Cabernet, and low alcohol wines like Moscato d’Asti--are technically dry. So when asking for “dry” wines and not saying much else, you are saying . . . nothing. The driest of dry wines come from Italy & France. The least dry red wines come from the Napa Valley, Australia, and South America. Ironically, the people who insist on the “driest” wines, want the least dry wines. “Dry” is a crutch for not knowing what you are talking about, so ditch it.
Don’t think you like everything but Merlot. Merlot is the ultimate red-headed stepchild. This is another little cue you do not know what you are talking about. Merlot is the most planted grape in Bordeaux & Northeastern Italy and is frankly, one of the most versatile, delicious grapes there is. Merlot meets you on the corner of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. It is deliciously red fruited, with aromas of red apple skin, subtle tobacco and red bell pepper undertones. It has fallen out of popularity since the hit movie Sideways ripped it apart and made Pinot Noir the new darling in 2004. Plantings of Merlot in California and worldwide have plummeted since. The only good news is there is a lot of value in buying Merlot. Look for Saint Emilion from France or Merlot from Friuli, Italy (usually labeled “Collio Rosso”). Merlot from California is usually heavily-oaked and has a sweeter fruit profile because of the ripeness of the fruit, making it not as versatile with food. Stick with France and Italy. I absolutely love when someone is into Merlot--to me it screams independent thinker! Love it!
Don’t talk about the “legs” or “tears” of the wine in the glass, it is mostly irrelevant. Not surprisingly this is something mostly men are guilty of, but it is definitely a don’t.
Don’t ask for “funky, barnyardy” wine. To me, that says “I want a flawed, messed up, dirty wine.” I would rather you drink beer, because wines that have that barnyard funk are contaminated with a flaw called brettanomyces--a good thing in sour beer, but a major flaw in winemaking. Alternatively, if you want something on the more rustic, masculine, earthy side of things, those are the words to use, and some wines to gravitate towards are Bandol (Mourvedre from Provence), Aglianico, Syrah, and Southern Rhone wines.
Don’t rely on heavily-marketed brands just because they are familiar. You are better than this! Say no to that big brand Pinot Grigio you know costs way too much for what it is and produces tons of wine. Say no to that champagne brand with the recognizable orange/yellow label--the one spending more money on marketing each year than most champagne villages sell annually in wine. If you see it on tv constantly, don’t drink it. Ask for estate bottled, organically farmed wine. Drink grower Champagne! Treat your wine like you treat your food! Be good to yourself. Reward small farmers and small producers. It all costs you the same amount of money. Drink less, drink better. Or drink more, drink better. Just . . . drink better. Sante!
Carlin Karr is an Advanced Sommelier and the Wine Director of the Frasca Food and Wine restaurant Group, operating the wine programs of the groups restaurants: Frasca Food and Wine and Pizzeria Locale in Boulder and Tavernetta Denver at Union Station. Karr has been recognized by Forbes 30 under 30, James Beard award for Best Wine Service, Wine & Spirits Best New Sommeliers, Zagat 30 under 30 and World of Fine Wine Magazine Award for Most Original Winelist.