How To Order Wine When You Know Nothing, From An Expert

Despite the hoards of articles online touting “Fun Date Ideas That Have Nothing To Do With Drinking,” let's be realistic… most dates you go on in your 20s will involve alcohol.

Actually, based on my mathematically-sound What's Appropriate Scale, most activities in your 20s have to do with alcohol: any holiday, any somewhat special occasion, anytime you eat… really just any time.

It seems, though, drinking in your later 20s should be tinged with a bit more enlightenment than it was in your college years, especially when it comes to dating.

No one wants to feel lost or frazzled on a date, and it's silly to spend our hard-earned money on something we know little about.

I think it's safe to say most of us wish we knew a little more about wine -- if only it required less effort and memorization, and if only you didn't have to pretend your palate was sophisticated enough to catch the alleged hints of lemon thistle masked by coffee overtones due to the oak-barrel aging process. (This makes no sense. Do not repeat this verbatim in any social setting.)

Good news! It turns out you don't have to be obnoxious when you talk about wine, you just have to know how to describe what you like and don't like (being able to pronounce everything wouldn't hurt).

I spoke to Jim Nejaime, a top wine merchant in the Berkshires, MA, whose store, Spirited, carries over 1,000 varieties of wine in addition to spirits and beer to help me break down the vast and enigmatic World of Wine.

Even if you know absolutely nothing about wine, now you can impress your date with an informed, quality decision.

Below are some quick and easy tips for effectively navigating a wine list and successfully ordering.

What do you do if you don't recognize a thing on the wine list?

Nikki Pagliaro

We've all been here. Jim says,

First, don't stray out of your comfortable price range, just to try to safeguard your choice... Many restaurants will denote 'Chef or Buyer's favorite' wines -- and most have too much pride to be pushing wines they don't honestly believe in, so good to follow those recs. If there isn't any Buyer's notes help, then stay with well-known, safe regions known for consistency. For reds, those include Napa, Sonoma, Willamette Valley, and for value, Mendoza and Australia. For whites, Bordeaux Blanc, Loire Valley, Napa, Sonoma, Central Coast, and for value, Chile. Other regions -- that can and do produce great wines -- have more variability in quality.

What do you do if you're interested in what's trendy?

Nikki Pagliaro

There's nothing wrong with enjoying the classics, but being experimental and knowing what's newly popular can make choosing wine more exciting. Jim says,

Newest trends in wine have been great sparklers from all over the world, including dry sparkling red Lambruscos from Emilia-Romagna (home of Reggiano Parmesan and Modena Balsemic vinegars). Nothing like the sweet Ruinite Lambrusco we've known.  Other trendy and delicious sparklers include Prosecco, Cava from Spain and Loire Valley Sparklers. Trendy whites include crisp, dry Gruner Veltliner from Austria, dry Vouvray and Muscadet from the Loire Valley and Marlborough New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs. Trendy reds include Cabernet Franc, Malbec, great red values from Portugal and Spain and 'Rhone Ranger' reds from California.

What do you do if you want the biggest bang for your buck?

Nikki Pagliaro

I asked Jim about the validity of the theory you shouldn't order the second cheapest bottle of wine because that's what the restaurant expects you to do and, therefore, makes it the worst deal. He says,

I've found this to be almost always true. Restaurant wine prices generally vary from twice retail to as much as four times retail. The cheapest and second cheapest bottles on the list, for example $20, often is a $5 bottle at retail. The next level up ($30-$45) is likely to be $15-$ 20 retail bottles. This next level beyond the cheapest and second cheapest is much more likely to be a very good quality-price ratio bottle that will be well-worth the extra jump in price. Again, it is good practice to ask the Somm what they think are the two best 'Under the Radar Values' on the list.

What do you do if you've already had cocktails?

Nikki Pagliaro

You went out for a drink, it went well and now you're at dinner. Jim says,

If pre-dinner cocktails, I'd suggest go for a more full-bodied dinner red. Hard to enjoy delicate flavors after a cocktail.

What do you do if you're worried about staining your teeth purple?

Nikki Pagliaro

There's nothing quite like flashing those pearly purples while you flirt. Jim says,

Red wine stains teeth more when it is 'tasted' or sloshed around in your mouth, rather than when you're actually drinking it. The lighter varieties such as Gamay (in Beaujolais), and Pinot Noir will stain less than richer reds such as Cabernet, Malbec or Syrah. A great way to pace, enjoy and stay hydrated is to balance with frequent sips of water, and this also rinses wine stains from your teeth. However, I think best to have a small toothbrush stashed in coat pocket or purse and do a quick brush during a restroom break, and at the end of the meal….and enjoy the reds!

What do you do if you're trying to get a stronger buzz? What do you do if you want to stay more sober?

Nikki Pagliaro

Depending on who you're on a date with and how it's going, you may want to lean in one direction when it comes to alcohol content. Jim says,

Most wines will be between 13-15 percent alc, reds and whites. Sparkling wines are a bit lower in alc. Dry and sweeter Rieslings and dry whites from cool climates such as Austria generally will have significantly lower alcohol, in the 9-11 percent range. Reds also generally have lower alcohol when they are from cooler wine growing regions since the grapes don't achieve as high a natural ripeness level. Reds from Alto Adige in northern Italy, Austria, Finger Lakes and Beaujolais and Bordeaux France are all generally lower in alcohol than big reds from Napa, Mendoza and the Rhone Valley.