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In lieu of all those out to celebrate Valentine’s Day this weekend, be it with friends, loves, or in rebellion of it, I grabbed our Sommelier, Hai Tran, and asked for a few tips on ordering wine at our favorite restaurants. Here are his questions and queues to help you along in picking the best bottle:

Who are you eating with? The company you keep is part of the dining experience, and in combination with the ambience and food, wine completes the picture. So when faced with the task of ordering wine, don’t forget to keep your company in mind. Two of the best questions are “do you prefer red or white?” or “what type of wine do you drink at home?” Both of these greatly narrow down the selection.

What’s for dinner? Wine is meant to compliment, so it’s important to take that into consideration. The old “reds with reds” and “whites with whites” isn’t a bad place to start when you don’t know much about wine, because it’s generally true.

Is there a theme here? If the place is 95 percent Italian wines, you should probably order an Italian wine. Those three California wines are there to please the couple who “only drinks California wines”. If that is you, rest assured the establishment has given as much care into selecting those three as they did with the Italian selections, but the wines they have the most of are most likely what the restaurant curates with the most care.

Do not order the second cheapest bottle. Everyone goes for the second cheapest bottle of wine, which generally is the worst in value. Restaurants know that you don’t want to look cheap, so if they take an inexpensive wholesale bottle and price it as the second least expensive, they will make more money on it. You’re better off buying the actual cheapest if price is a factor.

Be real – price is always a factor. You should always be honest with your sommelier or waiter about what you’re willing to spend. If you want to get real sneaky, open the menu and say, “Do you have anything else like this you’d recommend?” and point to a price you are comfortable with. Everyone else at the table will think you are pointing to an amazing bottle of wine, while the person assisting you will smile and gracefully point to you to a beautiful bottle.

Don’t be afraid of inexpensive wines. At a respectable restaurant, where there is a sommelier or a well-respected wine program, there is someone who has taken great care to build the whole list. They also choose the inexpensive wines too! Sometimes wines are relatively inexpensive because they come from odd places, or are made from weird grapes, or are just a remarkable bargain. Any respectable program will stand by their $40 bottle as much as their $400 bottle.

Just ask. Whether you are dealing with a sommelier or a waiter, they are guaranteed to know the wine list pretty well. Be confident in your ignorance and give yourself over to the pros. My personal go-to: “Listen, I don’t know any of these wines. What is your favorite on the menu that isn’t a million dollars?” The staff usually laughs and gives you something delicious and mid-priced.

Remember, your sommelier wants you to enjoy the wine, and they don’t want the taste or price to hinder that. Now enjoy your weekend!

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