How to Order Wine.

DSCF4510 So you are out to dinner. It’s the first date. You are handed the wine list, and you want to seem sophisticated. You casually open the massive book that suddenly reminds you of the 10 pound bible you had on an antique stand growing up. You start to scroll through the options, only to feel that all-too-familiar twinge of anxiety you used to have before taking a comprehensive exam. You see blanks, you can’t read, you panic and find yourself ordering Pinot Grigio only to find them delivering a bottle of white (Damnit! you meant Pinot Noir).

Take a deep breath. It’s wine. Furthermore, it’s fermented grape juice. This does not need to be a measure of your sophistication. With a few solid tips, you should be able to take on any wine list in town. In fact, reduce some anxiety by making a plan before you go. So many restaurants have them online now. Of course, they may not be up to date, so have a few in your back pocket. And feel free to ask me about any that seem a little left of center. It is likely awesome.

Okay… So first, when you sit down, take the edge off by ordering a glass of bubbles. It will buy you time and allow you to figure out what you want to eat first, which may in turn help with the wine selection. If you’re not in the mood for sparkling, there should be a few options for white wine by the glass. You can go with the familiar sounding Sauv Blanc for a citrusy, herbaceous unoaked option. Or for even more subtlety and a hint of white peach, try a Pinot Gris(gio) from Oregon or Italy. Oaky, buttery, rich options often leave you with Chardonnay. But if from France and inexpensive, I hedge my bets it’s a crisp, unoaked style with green apple notes and minerality. A little sweetness? See if they have a German Riesling–those are nicely balanced with acidity, so it’s not a sickly sweet sensation. For something different, see if they have a Gruner Veltliner (bright and peppery), Viognier (floral) or Chenin Blanc (honeyed white flowers, though not necessarily sweet).

As for the wine bible, it depends on whether you are looking for a killer pairing, a decent pairing or a who-the-heck-cares-I-just-want-a-bottle-I-know-I’ll-like-and-possibly-get-me-laid option. So we will try to do a condensed ‘how to’ for all three scenarios.

Menu and Wine List - Enoteca Vino Bar

Vincenzo Donatiello, sommelier del ristorante La Frasca di Milano Marittima

They're not all this intense, but bow-ties do help.

*Killer Pairing:

If you really don’t know much about wine at all and this is important to you, try and choose a restaurant with a reputable wine program and trust the sommelier or wine director. Even with my background, I love to see what they have to say. They are equally qualified and moreso because they have possibly tried the pairing, or at least really understand the food’s personal properties (acid, sugars, sour, bitter…). I only know one half of the puzzle well. Humble yourself. Defer to experience, and it will enrich your own.

*Decent Pairing:

The key to a good pairing is simply to avoid a disaster pairing. This is often intuitive, but in case you are having a panic attack and need some last minute pointers to keep in mind, try to focus on the following:

  1. With lighter fish, chicken with white wine or cream sauces and most vegetarian fare, try to stick with white wine, or if you really are craving red, then something with low tannins, low to medium body, and less than 13.5% alcohol. Some options for citrus-accented dishes might be a French Sauv Blanc, an Austrian Gruner, Spanish Albarinos or Verdejos. With richer sauces, discover a blend from the Rhone, a Chardonnay from the Macon or a Godello from Spain. If going red, stick with Pinots, Austrian reds like Zweigelt and Blaufrankish (so good, you must try if you like Pinots!), youthful Cotes du Rhones (ask waiter for description), Tempranillo ‘Joven’ (often unoaked and fruity), Spanish Garnacha and even some simple Sangiovese from Tuscany (less oak the better).
  2. Don’t get a huge oaky wine with lighter fare, especially seafood. It will choke the life out of your dish and possibly produce some really harsh, dissonant off-flavors.
  3. Avoid white wine with red meat. It’s just wrong.
  4. Cabernet does not go with leaf-based salad. I am sorry. Unless it is a steak salad with no greens, you are going to get a bad combination.
  5. The catch-all red when you are out with several people ordering different food is Pinot Noir. The catch-all white is Gruner Veltliner (I know, I should get off it… but it’s so food-friendly!).
  6. High alcohol and tannins are rough with many dishes. Big Cali reds are fun for sipping but can be difficult for pairing. Unless you have some substantial, carnivorous options, I would get experimental with other options.
  7. Alternative Meat Pairing Big Red Choices: Bored of Cab, but want something that will pair similarly well and hit the spot. First, try out some other blends in the states. There are some great values coming out of Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County (Syrahs, too!) and Washington State. Heck, Colorado’s very own Ben Parsons of Infinite Monkey makes fantastic, bold reds that would do the trick. Go to South America for a close to Cali style. Choose from Argentinean Malbecs or Chilean Carmeneres and Syrahs. Maybe try a Cab blend from France for a change. Ever heard of Bordeaux? You can also find great pricing on Spanish Riojas, Ribera del Duero and occasionally Priorat (often massive blends in and around Barcelona…kinda).


  8. For a smart, crowd-pleasing white, don’t be afraid to venture into Italian odd-sounding varietals like Falanghina or from regions like Soave, Gavi or Friuli. They are incredibly food friendly and satisfying to a range of palates. I also get great response from Oregon whites, blends and Argentinean Torrontes.
  9. For sensational values in the red category and probably my biggest crowd-pleasers, stick to South American (Malbecs, Chilean reds), Spanish (Jumilla Monastrell, Garnacha, and regional Tempranillos), southern French (Languedoc, Provence, Vin de Pays) and Australian blends (seem to be less jammy than Shiraz straight up).


*Who-the-heck-cares-I-just-want-a-bottle-I-know-I’ll-like-and-possibly-get-me-laid option:

There’s no stopping you here, is there? I get it. Sometimes you just want a fantastic bottle to savor. The food is second fiddle, or at least on a plane of its own. In this case, just go for whatever your heart desires and if you notice that your oaky, sappy Syrah is overpowering your sesame miso orange marinated sea bass, remember to have a palate cleanser (like bread) between bites.

The thing is, it’s your money, it’s your palate, it’s your night out. If you know what you like, go for it. Most pairings are not disastrous, so you have decent odds. But if you want to use a night out as a perfect excuse to branch out, this guide should help you start that journey.

[Take this guide with you! Denver Off The Wagon now has a mobile version. Just go to on your phone.]

About Ashley Hausman

Originally from Wisconsin, Ashley moved to Colorado to hike and climb mountains as soon as she had a B.A. in hand. Quickly she learned, she needed to find a career. So she went back to grad school to get her PhD in English & American Literature, beginning with a Masters at New York University. A few long papers, a thesis and a masters degree later, she found wine was not only an incredible way to enhance Derridean studies, but it had its own story to tell: of regions, soils, cultures and farming. While Woolf still had her heart, Burgundy was creeping in… She decided to postpone the PhD and go for the plunge. Now, she manages Little’s Wine & Spirits near the University of Denver. She orders by day, sips and tells all in her blog by night, and runs private wine parties in between in addition to giving advice on cellar building, wine vacations and food pairing. It’s a passion that grows only more complex with every passing vintage.