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The Art of Ordering Wine

When it comes to ordering wine, it’s easy to feel intimidated. Chablis or Shiraz? What’s the difference between Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir? Which entrée is best matched with a Chianti, a Cabernet, or a Chardonnay?

“Wine is very complicated,” says Jamie Kluz, a 2009 Culinary Arts graduate of The Illinois Institute of Art — Chicago. “Some places have incredibly long wine lists that can sometimes be a bit overwhelming.”

Part of the problem is that ordering wine involves multiple languages. Tim Gaiser, Education Director for The Court of Master Sommeliers Americas, says there are more than 1,000 fine wine grapes grown around the world and about 75,000 wines produced each year. With those numbers, customers new to the wine ordering experience don’t stand a chance.

“If you’re a consumer trying to figure out [the] language and you have your own set of favorites, you can use those as a benchmark for comparison,” says Gaiser, whose group promotes excellence in hotel and restaurant beverage service. “But once you wander outside of your comfort zone, you need help.”

Such wanderers will find plenty of help at restaurants. Servers, sommeliers, and even wine buyers can guide customers to the best wine complement for meals of chicken or beef, as well as those for dessert.

Tips on how best to link wines with food can be helpful even to those with discerning palates.

“I used to do the same thing — pass the wine list to the person next to me and hope they knew what they were doing,” Kluz says, “because while I knew what I liked, I didn’t have the faintest idea sometimes about what food to have with it.”

All of those varieties and pairing possibilities can be too much even for aficionados when ordering wine.

“Most people don’t understand the flavors and differences in wine,” says Joe LaVilla, Senior Academic Director for three culinary programs at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Phoenix. “It’s like trying to learn the names, relationships, and personalities of a football stadium worth of people all at once. Most people find one thing they like and then stick with it, but we would never do that with food.”

As with food on a menu, establishments can place wines in an order that would suggest one over another, or guide customers to certain pairings of food and wine. But restaurants aren’t trying to rip off customers by doing so, Gaiser says.

It’s more important, Gaiser says, for customers to consider value than price when ordering wine — especially in a tight economy.

“Obviously there’s an inherent part of any job in a restaurant that is to up-sell,” he adds. “If you’re selling someone a bottle of wine, that’s part of your job. [But] if someone shows interest and you know of a better wine that costs more, you recommend it.”

Sometimes consumers struggle to spot the best value.

If servers first direct customers to a high-priced wine, and then show middle and low–end bottles, customers usually order the wine from the middle category, Kluz says.

“There is a perception of poor quality in lower-priced wines that just isn’t accurate,” he continues. “Though often times the mark-up on the highest priced is the lowest, so sometimes you’re getting a good deal on something rather extravagant.”

Customers can get caught up in the prices when ordering wines and try to impress others with what they order. LaVilla says these “status seekers” can be easy to spot — especially when they turn the bottle so that neighboring diners can see the label.

“They order wine based on the reviews in magazines, or on the boutique nature of the business, not the quality of the wine or their personal taste,” he says. “They want to show off that they know ‘good wine.’”

Kluz says a similar phenomenon occurred with Pinot Noir once the movie Sideways became popular. After people heard the buzz about the film, they began ordering the wine more and more.

“It is one of the more difficult and expensive grapes to grow, which is why a decent bottle usually costs around $30,” she says. “If you find a Pinot from South America at $12 a bottle, chances are it’s not the same wine that created all of the hype in Sideways.”

The best advice, those in the wine industry agree, is to ask and trust the restaurant employees when it comes to ordering wine. And diners should remember why they chose the restaurant – for the food it offers.

“People should spend more time thinking about the entrée they are going to order than they do the bottle of wine,” Kluz points out. “Wine is sort of like an expensive condiment — the fancy ketchup, if you will. It’s meant to enhance what you’re eating, not steal the show.”

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