Navigating a Wine List

Navigating a Wine List

By Allen R. Balik, Napa Valley Register

We’ve all experienced it — perhaps some more than others. You’ve been planning a special night out with family and friends and eagerly await the transcendental experience of dining in a majestic restaurant.

On entering this palace of gastronomy, you are struck by its beauty and the regal nature of the entire scene. Now comfortably seated with your guests, you wait for the menus to be delivered by servers.

Then the moment of truth arrives. Here comes the wine list. Are you excited and intrigued with the search ahead or intimidated by its sheer size and complexity? Are you thinking, “Who can read all this and still enjoy the evening?”

With today’s computers, iPads and ever-changing vinous choices, the sight of the leather-bound and beautiful calligraphy of the tome is more or less a thing of the past. But for many, the wine list can still be intimidating regardless whether it was printed or downloaded that day (better ensuring the availability of your selection) or penned by hand as many were some time ago.

The construction of the list can directly relate to your comfort level in navigating through its content. Most lists are first arranged by wine type — sparkling, rosé, white, red and dessert — and that’s easy enough to understand. Yet how the wines are listed under these general categories may be challenging. Is it by varietal, country, region, assumed taste perceptions (e.g. light, crisp, fruity, rich, full bodied) or even price?

Today’s lists, regardless of the method used, are generally organized in a more “user-friendly” manner geared to inform rather than intimidate. But its sheer complexity may still be discouraging, and even if I understand the layout, what about all these names I can’t pronounce?

It’s always good to remember that the sommelier is your friend and there to help. The advice he or she offers can enhance your entire dining experience, so be sure to take advantage of the expertise. Asking the server about a dish’s preparation or the chef’s suggestion is common place at the table. Why not seek the same advice from the sommelier when it comes to your choice of wine?

To deconstruct and simplify any wine list, start by narrowing your selection process as you would with the menu or other shopping experience. If you know you want fish, you don’t have to spend time perusing the beef dishes. If you walk into a department store to buy a sweater, you don’t have to look at the fragrance, shoe and shirt displays. By the same token, if you want a white wine, don’t worry about the daunting list of reds and others. If cabernet is your choice, don’t worry about the pinots and zins. And if you can’t pronounce it, just point and ask the sommelier for help. Getting any easier?

Many years ago, I was on a business trip in Tokyo. We were having dinner at a heralded new restaurant featuring “Franco/Japanese” cuisine as it was all the rage in Japan at that time. I was handed the wine list by our host and asked to select a wine. My eyes widened and began to drift to the right side (price column) of the page. It was then our host politely extended his hand to cover the prices and said with a smile, “Just concentrate on the left side.

I frequently recall this exchange as price is often a determining factor in wine selection. So here’s another way to better focus your exploration of the list. If your limit is $50, don’t worry about all those wines that are more expensive.

Nowhere is it said that a great wine list must be intimidating or that a great wine must be expensive.

Now that you’ve better focused your choices and feel more comfortable with a wine list, remember that experimentation is also fun, so try something new from time to time. As you now know, the sommelier is there to assist you. Tell him or her you’re looking for something a bit different and what you like so he or she can guide you on the exploration with any number of good choices.

The best message here: Don’t be intimidated by the list. Just enjoy the experience even if a little help is needed.


A personal note from Frank Melis:  I suggest to bring your own bottle. It is cheaper to pay the corkage fee and you’ll enjoy what you know.  By doing so you’ll save a bundle of money as some wines are marked up 200 to 250%. As always, don’t hesitate to give me a call at 415-337-4083 or email  and let me be your personal sommelier. I’ll help you select a few wonderful wines to have on hand to be prepared for any occasion.