Pass on the cocktails
First, resist the urge to order a cocktail. If you'd like to enjoy a glass of something before you commit to a bottle, try a glass of sparkling wine, or a light riesling or sauvignon blanc. You'll enjoy your food more than if you indulge in a heavy, palate-numbing cocktail.
After you decide what you're eating, take a look at the wine list. Don't feel like hassling it? Just ask the server to suggest something by the glass.
For a bottle, if you know whether you'd like white or red, you're halfway there. In better restaurants, often the staff will know what will complement what you've ordered -- just ask.
If the list is overwhelming, but you know you want, say, a red, simply find any red in the price range you'd like to spend, point to it and tell the server, "I was thinking about this one, but maybe you have an idea of something that would work better?" A sensitive server should steer you to something appropriate in your budget.
Table for four
Now, say yours is a party of four, all of whom are eating different things. What do you do? The best plan is to choose an all-purpose wine. A crisp white, such as a not-too-oaky sauvignon blanc, will go with everything from salads to fish and chicken to pastas to veal and pork. A light or medium red -- a pinot noir or a beaujolais, for example -- will be delicious with many fish, especially salmon and tuna, as well as just about any pasta, chicken, or meat dish.
In a pinch, if you can't find one bottle that satisfies all, you can always order two half-bottles, one white and one red. Or a glass or bottle of white first, then a glass or bottle of red.
The decision made, the wine ordered, next comes that dreaded ritual of opening the wine. When the server shows you the bottle, you don't have to admire it, just check that it's the right wine in the right year. He or she opens it and gives you the cork. Don't sweat it; just put it on the table. If you want, you can feel it and murmur "humpf," and leave it to the server and your companions to wonder what you mean.
Now the server pours for you to taste. Why? Not to find out how much you like it, just that it's in good condition. Give it a swirl and a big sniff. Smell OK? Not weird or musty? No? Then it should be OK. You're not required to offer an opinion, just nod or say it's fine.
Whew! That accomplished, the server pours all around, filling your glass last. That's your cue to enjoy!
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