Mailbag Monday: Ordering Wine for the Table?

Dear Alleigh:
When you’re at a restaurant with friends, how do you go about choosing a wine for the table – that is, picking a flexible wine that will go with lots of different people’s meal choices AND being considerate about prices?

Ah…this is something I think most people, including myself, struggle with.  Price, in particular can be a bit sticky because most people don’t want to spend $50 on a bottle of wine when they go to the wine store, but the bottle mark-ups at restaurants often make picking a less expensive wine difficult.

First, this probably goes without saying, but I always ask who is interested in wine.  I never like to assume everyone is going to have a glass, particularly since I’m used to dining with Hubby, who doesn’t drink at all.

Next, I look at the restaurant’s per glass price for a sense of the minimum each person would spend if we weren’t ordering a bottle.

Then, I multiple the per glass price by the number of people sharing the bottle to determine my “goal” price. Honestly, most places around here don’t have per glass prices under $8, and the good per glass options are often at least $10 or $12.  So, with four people at $10 per glass, my goal would be to order a bottle close $40.  Since there are usually 5 or 6 good sized pours in each bottle, a bottle in the $40 range actually works out to be between $6 or $7 per glass.

Obviously, this method doesn’t always work because the per glass price might be so low that it results in a “goal” bottle price that is lower than anything on the menu.  In that case, unless you know otherwise, my rule of thumb is that people are uncomfortable spending more than $10 per glass.

As for the types of wine, because I’m a wine dork, I usually research the restaurant and wine list beforehand.  I know most people don’t do that, though.  So, if you’re not going to research the wines beforehand, I hate to say it, but the most flexible wines are going to be grapes you’re very familiar with—Cabernet Sauvignon, unoaked-Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. That said, there are certain wines that generally go well with certain types of food regardless of the specific dish.  For example, if you’re in an Italian restaurant, ordering Chianti for the table is a good bet.  Or, if you’re in an Indian restaurant, a Riesling or Gewürztraminer will pair nicely with most dishes.

When in doubt, though, figure out your price range and then ask your waiter, particularly if you don’t see a wine on the list that you recognize.  Once you’ve given him/her the amount you want to spend, a good server will be familiar with the list and know which wines are the versatile crowd pleasers.  Plus, that’s sometimes the best way to find the hidden gems on a wine list.


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