A few thoughts here, if I may:

If you're choosing a wine in a restaurant, you'll need first to decide whether to buy an entire bottle or get wine by the glass.

  1. If you know what you want, get it. I guess that goes without saying, but I include it here for logical completeness.
  2. Otherwise, you will have to decide whether you want to buy a glass of wine or a whole bottle. I find that a glass will do fine over the course of a meal, so if you are dining as a couple you may want to go by-the-glass. This is usually better than having leftover wine; and if you want more you can always get a glass of another type afterward, thereby trying out more wines than you would if you got an entire bottle. The individual glass option is good if you and your date have differing ideas on wine, but the number of wines to choose from will likely be small.
  3. If you have a party of several people, buy wine by the bottle. It will be cheaper overall and you'll look more like a big shot. You will have to sift through numerous possibilities, but if you make a good pick people will tend to think of you as a wine expert thereafter.
OK, smart guy, what do I choose? Your taste (and that of your guest or guests) should be the key--whether you're buying a wine at a restaurant or getting one for a dinner at home with friends. I've found that people that are not normally wine drinkers prefer white wine, because it's cool (-->serve white wines cool, but not cold) and generally light-bodied. Plus, though the rule is "white wine with fish," white wines really go with everything.

If you go the white route, get a white with an intensity of flavor that is comparable to your dish. Three major white varieties you may encounter are:

There are, of course, other types of white wines, but these are the big three (well, maybe not Pinot Grigio, but it is in my book).

Some people like rosé or "blush" wines. I'm not their biggest fan, but they're nice and cool and easy to drink, so if you're in the mood, go for it. I find these are more often sippin' wines, rather than ones to accompany a meal, but again this is a taste issue. White Zinfandel (though the wine itself is pink) is a big one in this class.

If you're getting/cooking something involving meat, I'd definitely go with a red wine. Red wine rocks, though it's not really to everyone's taste. It's generally served just below room temperature, so it can seem warm. And it does need protein-oriented food to go along with it, as red wines can have lots of tannins--these are chemical compounds which give the wine its flavor, but can give the wine a bitter taste if it is served too cool or warm, or if they are not offset with meat.

If you go the red route, get a red (again) with an intensity of flavor that is comparable to your dish. Three major red varieties you may encounter are:

But how do I sift through all these names? Some don't even say what kind of wine they are! Oy gevalt! OK, now that you know the general type of wine you want, here are some rules of thumb to narrow your choices:

  1. Buy a domestic wine, generally from California French and Italian wines are great (my favorite wine is from Portugal), but the way they label wines is really messed up. If you buy a US wine, it will say "Chardonnay," and you'll know that that's what you're getting. You won't need to know that a wine from St. Emilion is actually a Merlot from Bordeaux and the word "cru" will happily stay out of your vocabulary (for now...).
  2. If you're trying to impress, for God's sake don't spend less than $10 on a bottle! There are a lot of great cheap wines (I recently bought a case of a $7 wine that I love), but there are also many, many really bad cheap wines. The $10 limit is a good cutoff. Conversely, you will not need to spend more than about $25 (even in a restaurant) to get a pretty good bottle of wine. You don't want to spend $100 unless you know a lot about what you're ordering.
  3. Don't flip out about the year or "vintage." It never rains in California (or so says the song), so therefore every year (with few exceptions) is pretty good. Older is generally better, but also more expensive. Three years old is pretty good for a red, but whites should generally be drunk young--as young as one year.

And now a few tips on how to drink the wine you've been served:

  • Don't sniff the cork. This will not tell you anything. Sniff the wine to see if it smells like cork. If it does, send it back.
  • Grasp the glass by the stem, not by the bowl. This will help to keep the wine from warming up too much.
  • Always offer a toast.
  • Drink that nectar down and enjoy!

Back to Rook's Wine Reviews

A comment has been made that, as E2 is an international community, California wines are to many foreign wines. This certainly does complicate matters. The best I can do with limited space and time is to offer the follwing conversion table:

Red Burgundy = Pinot Noir
White Burgundy = Chardonnay
Red Bordeaux = Cabernet Sauvignon with two exceptions:
-->Wines from St. Emilion and Pomerol = Merlot
White Bordeaux = Sauvignon Blanc

Most Italian wines have some component of Sangiovese. Barolos and Barbarescos the notable exceptions. Also Dolcettos and Barberas and Montepulcianos and Valpolicellas. Hell, just stay away from Italy until you get the hang of things.

It has also been pointed out that many restaurants offer half-bottles or carafes of wine. These are quite convenient if there's just a couple of you eating. A local restaurant here can bring you wine in either a small or large ceramic chicken. Just order the size wine you think you'll consume.

And a further note on by-the-glass wine buying--just because only a few options may be available doesn't mean they are bad wines. I've had some good ones through this method. It's true that the best wine on any winelist is not likely to be offered by the glass, but there's no sense in buying a $40 bottle if you aren't going to finish it.