How Do I Navigate a Restaurant Wine List?

School's in session, on your terms: We're asking the Valley's top wine gurus to answer all your wine-related queries, tackling them one at a time each Wednesday, so we can all stress less and pour more. Today's teacher: Christine Wisniewski, owner of Caffe Boa and certified sommelier. 

In the spirit of wine-drinking adventure, we bring you tips for busting out of your wine rut, one glass at a time, the easy way: At a restaurant, where you don't have to commit to a whole bottle (unless you're feeling extra adventurous, that is...).

UNCORK THE ISSUE: How do I navigate a restaurant wine list?

SPILL THE JUICE: "If you are a lover of wine, love what you drink, learn what suits you and then branch out to become more experimental," says Christine Wisniewski, the owner of Caffe Boa with her husband, Jay, and a certified sommelier.

Drop the pretension. "I hate when there's that air of snobbiness about wine because it's really just a drink that you drink with your food," says Wisniewski. Try a restaurant that has the same attitude; it will ensure your experience is fun, not fussy.

NOTE THE COMPLEXITIES: Decide what you're eating first. "There is a science between pairing food and wine," Wisniewski says. "I would look for a recommendation after you choose your food, but I wouldn't veer off completely of what you love to drink, either."

Start with what you know. "If you have some wine experience, look for a grape varietal you are familiar with and move from there," Wisniewski recommends, suggesting you arm yourself with keywords for describing flavor profiles and regions you enjoy.

Just ask! "I love getting knowledge from the bartender or sommelier," Wisniewski says of her own experience dining out. "Let them know what style or region you're looking for and let them steer you into a style. For instance: 'I don't like really heavy wines; I don't want a lot of oak; I like really fruity wines.'"

After you make the leap and choose a wine, know how to enjoy it at the table.

Appraise the wine. "First, and this is very basic, take a glance and make sure there's nothing unusual in the glass," Wisniewski says. "Swirl the glass to get some oxygen to the wine and take a sniff to make sure there are no off odors in the wine."

Speak up! "If there's something that doesn't look or smell right, say so!" Wisniewski advises. Even restaurants can have bad bottles, so be on the lookout. That said, she warns to be open: Just because it isn't your favorite doesn't mean it's bad.

"Finally: Taste," Wisniewski says. "Swirl and hit all the areas of your tongue to ensure the flavor profile is what you were seeking."

SWALLOW THIS: "Be comfortable with your choice, whether it's your own or a recommendation," Wisniewski says of the key to navigating a restaurant wine list. "And be open: Open to new flavors and a new experience."

Come back for class next Wednesday and leave your questions for our wine gurus in the comments section below, no hand-raising necessary.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Hannah E Williams

Latest Stories