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Sommelier Roundtable: Most Common Mistakes

Dining out and hoping to impress? These 7 wine pros share the biggest wine blunders they see from diners—and how to avoid them
Wine should be the least of your worries.
Photo by: iStockPhoto
Wine should be the least of your worries.

Posted: July 13, 2018

No one wants a night out to be marred by a less-than-ideal wine experience, whether it's an off pairing or a bottle that didn't seem up to its price. Fortunately, many fine-dining restaurants keep an employee—or several—on staff whose job it is to help you get the best wine experience possible: the sommelier.

These seven wine pros from Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners shared the most common mistakes and misconceptions they see during service on the floor—and how you can steer clear of them.

Wine Spectator: What's the most common mistake or misconception diners should avoid when ordering wine?

Andrew Algren, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Cherry Circle Room in Chicago

Do not assume your sommelier is out to get you! If you are dining somewhere you trust, then their entire staff is there to help you. Be open and honest about your likes, preferences and price points. Whether you are in for a rare older bottle from the Jura or $45 bottle of Malbec, we are here to help.

Don't clobber subtle seafood preparations, raw dishes, and oysters that come earlier in the evening with the same big red you want to have later on in the meal. Consider a glass of sparkling, white, rosé, or—if it just has to be red—something lighter like Gamay or Barbera. Restaurants are in the food and beverage industry, so give yourself a chance to enjoy both.

Sian Ferguson Nagan, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Alinea in Chicago

Shutting down when they see a big list of options and avoiding wine altogether. Ask your sommelier for suggestions in a price range that you are comfortable with and describe the last wine that you remember really enjoying. Sometimes the most fun route is to sign up for pairings or a progression of wines by the glass and go with the flow to try new things you might not have considered. You may not fall in love with each and every one, but you can take advantage of trying multiple wines for [a similar] price per person than selecting one bottle.

Rebecca Kirhoffer, owner and wine director at Award of Excellence winner Rebeccas in Greenwich, Conn.

One of the most common mistakes is that a guest orders a half-bottle thinking it is a full bottle. I train the staff to be aware that this happens from time to time and have them mention that it is a wonderful half-bottle selection that Rebecca has chosen, as half-bottles are rarely made these days by many producers.

Another common mistake is a guest ordering a bottle of wine thinking it is white, but it is actually a red. Example: Chassagne-Montrachet rouge—[with diners] thinking it is only a white wine!

Christopher Cannon, owner of Best of Award of Excellence winner Jockey Hollow Bar and Kitchen in Morristown, N.J.

That price is equivalent to quality. And that rosé is only good in the spring and summer.

Wendy Heilmann, wine director at Pebble Beach Resorts and its three Best of Award of Excellence winners, in Pebble Beach, Calif.

Sometimes there is a misconception that the least expensive wines on the wine list aren't of good quality. Hopefully if you are dining in a nice restaurant or perusing your local wine shop, the buyer has cultivated a list of only wines that he or she would be happy to personally consume. Not everyone has the same budget to order a rare gem on the wine list. There are some incredible values out of places like Austria, Germany, Sicily, Spain and New York that can be the perfect pairing with that evening's experience. The barrier to curious exploration is minimized if the cost of that "risky pick" is low. Share with your server what type of wine you are looking for and the kind of price range you wish to stay within. The sommelier will help you find that gem, whether it's $40, $400 or $4,000.

Michelle Corry, co-owner and wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Five Fifty-Five in Portland, Maine

Not trusting the server/captain in making recommendations and guiding you through their wine list. The fun of going out to a wine-focused restaurant is to try something new. Many customers are overwhelmed or nervous/embarrassed to ask for help, but that's what we are here for, and no one knows more about the wines on the list than the staff. If you really enjoy wine, this is a great way to engage your server, who can learn more about your tastes and help you find something that really enhances your entire experience.

Nancy Smith, co-owner and wine director at Award of Excellence winner Michael Smith in Kansas City, Mo.

Guests will often go with name recognition alone. They may automatically see something they recognize instead of trying something new or exploring our regions represented on wine lists. Go outside your comfort zone! Asking for a recommendation is always nice; you may decline but you may find something that will blow your mind.

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