Choose a Wine with Confidence

Choose a Wine with Confidence

Not a big wine drinker? No problem. Here’s how to navigate a wine list like a pro.

By Kelly Brown

I have the same fright at cosmetic counters that most people get from selecting wine from a restaurant list. Aside from being completely overwhelmed with fancy cosmetics labels and too many colors, I often have no real understanding of the quality vs. value relationship. What I really want to know is if the $40 mascara is really going to stand up to the sweaty summers of New York City, or if the $8.99 drug store version is really the bargain – offering the same results for less.

But wine I get. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. Here are some tricks of the wine trade to help you optimize next time you’re expected to choose one.

Take Nominations

Ask your party if there are any wine preferences. If you are entertaining a colleague from another country that produces wine, offer to select a wine from her country, or ask if she has a favorite region. It will help melt even the iciest of personalities.

Asking for input doesn’t mean you’re delegating the decision; it shows a general courtesy and respect to your guests but secretly helps you narrow the field of choices.

Choose a Country

Depending on the restaurant, wine lists can rival many novels in size, or they can simply have a few well-done acts: red, white, sparkling and dessert.

Large lists are frequently broken down by country, type or both and usually come with a wine guide – the sommelier. In business situations I frequently start by choosing a country, often one I find interesting or that reflects my group’s preferences. Then I select a preferred color and/or style (red, white, bubbly or sweet).

Ask for suggestions in your preferred style and price range. In business, be sly by pointing to a price vs. verbalizing. “I am considering a wine (for example, merlot or chianti) along these lines. Can you suggest one or two I should consider that are similar?” If you’re planning a group dining event and have a set budget, either ask that the list be sent to you in advance to pre-select the wines (tell the restaurant of your selection prior to your dinner), or speak with the wine director beforehand and decide together.

Geography vs. Varietal

With the exception of proprietary blends, “new world” wines are largely designated by varietal and region (for example, chardonnay or Sonoma County), whereas “old world” wines are most often designated by region (such as Chianti, Bordeaux or Rioja).

If you are unsure of the grape varietal associated to the wine or unfamiliar with the wine style, don’t be ashamed to ask your server or the sommelier. Even us wine geeks ask lots of questions.

For Starters

I always recommend starting with champagne or sparkling wine. In addition to making every moment a little more special, they are also terrific food wines. Don’t hesitate to try a sparkling wine or Cava just because it is the least expensive one on the list.

Surf & Turf

Forget wine pairing rules! Think more along the lines of style: lighter fare = lighter wines; hefty dishes = medium- to full-bodied wines. Pinot Noir is the diplomat’s wine; it easily crosses the borders between fish, meat and vegetarian dishes.

Did You Like It?

Part of learning about wine is having confidence in what you like and don’t like. I have a friend who detests the taste of grapefruit and naturally dislikes the flavor in her wine. I personally struggle with black licorice and anise. When you find a wine you really like, ask the waiter to remove the label from the bottle for you to take home.

Make sure you have enough to go around. A bottle (750 ml) of sparkling wine on average will serve five people (4-ounce pour), and a bottle of still wine will serve four people (5-ounce pour).


Half-bottle (375 ml) selections are popular on wine lists today and can be a perfect alternative for one or two people – and you can order different wines to complement multiple courses.

Here’s a list of suggested wines by type – and price range:

Bargain: Montsarra Cava (Spain)
Value: Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs (U.S.)
Splurge: Gosset Grande Rose (France)

Bargain: Concha Y Toro Diablo Reserve (Chile)
Value: Schug Sonoma Coast (U.S.)
Splurge: Louis Latour Puligny Montrachet Sous le Puits (France)

Sauvignon Blanc
Bargain: Geyser Peak (U.S.)
Value: Stone Paddock (New Zealand)
Splurge: Chateau Carbonnieux (France)

Interesting Whites
Bargain: Hogue Gewurztraminer (U.S.)
Value: Simonsig Chenin Blanc (South Africa)
Splurge: Treana Mer Soleil (U.S.)

Cabernet Blends
Bargain: Timbuktu Big Block Red (Australia)
Value: Bodega Catena Zapata (Argentina)
Splurge: Barnett Vineyards Spring Mountain District (U.S.)

Pinot Noir
Bargain: Veramonte Casablanca Reserva (Chile)
Value: Au Bon Climat Le Bon Climat (U.S.)
Splurge: Louis Jadot Clos Vougeot (France)

Interesting Reds
Bargain: Magnificent Wine Co. House Red (U.S.)
Value: Le Volte Tenuta dell’Ornellaia (Italy)
Splurge: Bodegas Muga Rioja Torre Muga (Spain)

Kelly Brown has made the wine and beverage industry the focus of her career for the past 15 years and finds promoting wine as natural as breathing. An instinctive bargain hunter with a passion for all things liquid, Brown helps make the journey of discovering wines across the globe fun and enjoyable. Visit for more on Kelly Brown.

Share this Article