Performance Anxiety: What to do When You’re Handed a Wine List

If your friends know you’re a wine lover, we’re pretty sure this scenario is one you’ve experienced.  You and your closest friends or family members have gathered at a swank restaurant to celebrate someone’s birthday or anniversary.  Everyone’s ready to eat and drink something delicious, and that festive sense of anticipation is in the air.

“Well, you’re the wine expert!” someone says, laughing heartily while handing you a list the size of a phone book.  Sure, you think.  I can handle this.

As the waiter starts taking orders, you realize that three people have ordered an Asian-inspired fish dish, while a couple of others have ordered rack of lamb, and one a hanger steak.  Some friends!  You think, as your palms start to sweat and you start to panic.  These same dastardly fish and steak orderers will probably post awful photos of you on Facebook the next day in which your forehead looks shiny and enormous.

“Would you like anything from the wine list?” asks the waiter.  Suddenly the words on the list have disintegrated into fuzzy mishmash, like something out of a bad dream sequence from a sitcom.

No need to run for the restroom and hide out for the rest of the evening nervously eating the complimentary breath mints, or simply order a beer for yourself and toss the wine list back in the center of the table.  We’ve got you covered.

Start with a Sparkler. In a larger group where you’re going to be ordering multiple bottles, starting with something sparkling is always a good idea.  Prosecco, Champagne, whatever floats your boat and the group’s budget.

Sparkling wine is one of those things that people rarely order or buy for themselves, but when it’s handed to them, they often don’t want to drink anything else!  Party Laws of Nature: You always run out of ice and sparkling wine, and no one ever touches that vegetable plate everyone thought it was so important to include.

Ordering Whites. When ordering white, keep it simple.  Do not, say, order an eight-year-old Crozes Hermitages from an obscure producer as the first wine of the evening at a celebratory dinner with a friends’ family and then feel too nervous to call it when the wine’s oxidized, and spend the rest of the evening feeling like an idiot while the rest of the guests wince with every sip.  Not that any of us have ever done anything like that.

Order something neutral, un- or lightly oaked, with unchallenging flavors.  Dinner out with your extended family is not the time to introduce your great aunt to the wonders of whites from the Jura.  A crisp, vibrant unoaked Chardonnay is a great choice for an all-purpose white, as is Pinot Grigio from a good quality producer.  Sauvignon Blancs made in a friendly, California style also work well in these situations.  Don’t try and reinvent the wheel on the fly when you’ve already had a cocktail.  If everyone is ordering oysters to share, get a bottle of Muscadet and be done with it.

Finding a Red to Pair with Everything. Red is the hardest thing to order for a group at a restaurant, because the entrees will tend to vary wildly in terms of what wine will pair with them.  In these situations, light bodied reds are your friend.  In more mainstream restaurants, this is going to mean Pinot Noir.  Order one from California if someone in your party is going to be suspicious of a red he can see his fingers through.  Otherwise, go for France or  Oregon, because their lighter body and higher acidity make them more flexible with lighter foods, which is the hard bit with red wine.  At our staff dinner last year, the most delicious, harmonious wine with food of the night was also the least expensive: an Pinot from Sancerre of all places.

Northern Italian reds that are not Barolo or Barbaresco can also work really well. A Barbera done in a not-too-oaky style or a Dolcetto will work well with a wide range of foods.  And, if you see Barolo producer Vajra’s Pinot Noir, snap it up!  I can’t think of a red I’ve tasted in the last couple of months that is such a winning combination of crowd-pleasing fruit and food-friendly acidity.  And, of course, our favorite wine-geek workhorse Beaujolais is a great choice when you’re trying to pair a red with everything from fish to steak.  A Beaujolais Cru won’t be perfect with everything, but it won’t tromp all over lighter dishes while still feel in like a real glass of red.

The most important things to remember are to keep it simple and to order with confidence.  If you seem sure that everyone will enjoy the wine you chose, they most likely will!  Embrace your position of power and influence, however limited.  It’ll make up for all of those times you’re at the mercy of vindictive clerks at the DMV.