Being a wine lover, I’m usually the one at the restaurant who is given the wine list for the table. But, in spite of how big of a wine geek I am, frequently I’ll be handed a wine list at a restaurant and not recognize a single wine on the list. This is hardly surprising considering Napa Valley alone has 500 or more wineries, and Bordeaux has 6,000+ wineries. Or, just as frequently, the only wines on the restaurant’s wine list that I know are ones that either I do not like or I cannot afford.

So, how does one choose a bottle of wine off a wine list when you don’t know any of the bottles you might be ordering?  I’ve come up with several strategies over the years.  Here are three of my go-to tricks:

  1. Italian DOCG or DOC wines. I think that avoiding a chemical headache the next morning from a poorly made wine is even more important than whether I like the taste of the wine or not. Considering the unfortunate prevalence of undisclosed chemicals in wines (particularly in American wines and cheap wines), as I wrote in my prior blog, the easiest way to avoid this risk for an unfamiliar wine is to drink Italian DOCG or DOC wine. (DOCG and DOC are Italian governmental standards for certain wines, and the bottles have the DOCG or DOC prominent on the label.) I’ve never once gotten a chemical headache from any Italian DOCG or DOC wine. So, if I see one of those bottles on the unfamiliar wine list, that’s often my go-to wine. And, if the wine list doesn’t list DOCG or DOC on it and it’s not obvious from the wine (for example, all Chianti Classico wines are DOCG wines), I’ll ask the waiter to bring over an unopened bottle so I can look to see if it’s labeled DOCG or DOC.
  2. Choose a wine and varietal based upon a country I love and trust. Some countries are more dependable on making quality and tasty wines, and ones that do not give chemical hangovers. Italy, discussed above, is one of those pretty trustworthy countries. There are many others like Portugal and South Africa, that I include in that group. Even better, there are country / varietal combinations that I know are usually great. For example, a Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina or a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand tend to consistently have a great taste and are ‘safe’ to drink. These are good options on an unfamiliar wine list.
  3. Choosing an American wine region I know and tend to trust. While many of America’s greatest wines come from Napa Valley, quality and price (which are not always related) can vary drastically in Napa Valley.
    • Paso Robles:  Paso Robles, a bit of a hidden gem among wine regions, still surprisingly under the radar, but yet frequently featured on wine lists. Its distinctive terroir and innovative winemakers produce an exciting array of wines. This combination makes wines from Paso something different, delightful, and very approchable.
    • Willamette Valley: Over the years, I’ve found Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs to be among the most consistent American wines in quality and price. When looking for an American wine in an unfamiliar wine list, I’ll often go for a mid-priced Willamette Valley Pinot.
    • Santa Barbara:  Many folks remember Santa Barbara from the movie Sideways (if you haven’t seen it, seriously add it to the top of your list.  Famously known for their Pinot Noirs, Syrah, and Chardonnay, this is an excellent go-to region for any wine list.

By employing these strategies, you can navigate unfamiliar lists and discover excellent wines that suit both your taste and budget.

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