The moment of truth arrives when you’re handed the wine list. Your colleague is on the left, an important new client on the right, and you’re in charge of choosing the wine. Don’t let the sweat beads ruin your designer dress. Selecting a bottle to pair with the meal should be simple.

First, realize that women are the majority of wine buyers and consumers in the United States, so you come from a position of strength. You will make a good impression if you order confidently. But what do you do when the mere mention of Cabernet causes concern?

Get the lay of the land. Look at how the wine list is set up. Most traditional lists organize wines by categories, such as grape variety and region. This is helpful if you know you like Merlot, for example, but it can also be overwhelming. As Kim Stare-Wallace, owner of Dry Creek Vineyard in Sonoma County, California, notes, “I’ve seen some restaurant wine lists that were so jumbled up that even a pro would find them confusing! I like wine lists that break wines out by wine style, not necessarily varietal, as that encourages experimentation.”

There is a positive trend these days to rank wines according to the way they taste and their style. These “progressive” wine lists are helpful because they separate bottles from relatively light to full-bodied, from mild to strong tasting, and from sweet to dry. This type of list makes it easier to pair wine with food, too, as you can match the style of wine with the dish.

Find your price comfort zone. Don’t be pressured into spending more money than you want to because you think the client needs to be impressed with names like Silver Oak, Jordan, or Opus One. If $50 is your limit, look for all the wines up to that amount, including unfamiliar ones. There are many options, and you can find bottles that will fit your budget while making you look like a star.

One common approach that women use is to choose the second least-expensive wine on the list. They don’t want to be cheap and order the lowest priced so they figure that the next one up is better. This is usually true, but remember that markups aren’t equal with wines. Lower-priced wines are often marked up the most, while the high-priced beauties have lower price hikes.

Look at half bottles. Half bottles, containing two to three glasses, are a classy option on a wine list. When hosting a diverse group of colleagues, you’ll find various opinions and desires, so ordering half bottles allows you to get a white and a red to please everyone at the table. If the event is a business lunch for
yourself and a client, a half bottle is the ideal size and looks as though you put thought into the selection.

Ask for help. Consult with the sommelier to compare notes and seek out the hidden gems or great values on the list. The sommeliers (pronounced som-el-YAY) of today don’t stick their noses in the air when asked questions. On the contrary, they usually want nothing more than to help you find what you need. As Jamie Leeds, chef/owner of Hanks restaurants in Washington, D.C., says, “I always ask the sommelier questions.

That’s what they are there for. It’s great to learn something new from them.”

Tell the wine steward or sommelier your price range (if you want to be discreet about the price, point to a comparable bottle on the list to indicate the range), and what dishes you’ll be ordering. You can also ask for a taste of the wine beforehand if the restaurant serves it by the glass. This way you know what you’re getting.

Finally, for a large group that you really want to impress, contact the wine director or owner ahead of time and ask for the wine list to be e-mailed to you (many restaurants also put a list on their website).

Food and Wine Pairing 101
Part of the success of picking the right wine for a meal—whether it’s business or pleasure—is understanding the relationship between what’s in your glass and what’s on each plate. There are no rules to matching food and wine, simply guidelines.

Match the texture or feel of the food and wine. Pair delicate foods with delicate wines and big foods with big wines. The mantra of red wine with meat and white with fish is outdated; pairing is now about the weight of the food and wine in your mouth. A rich, hearty stew goes best with a robust red, from Syrah to Côtes du Rhône, while a refreshing white pairs perfectly with a light vegetable pasta.

Highlight complementary aromas and flavors in the wine and food. An earthy Pinot Noir complements pork in a mushroom sauce, while a zesty red wine like Chianti works well with an acidic tomato sauce or tomato-topped bruschetta. A smooth, buttery Chardonnay is ideal with creamy brie cheese, lobster with drawn butter, or roasted chicken.

Go for contrast. Serve a tangy wine like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio to slice through the richness of dishes from scallops to pizza.

Consider the concentration or intensity of the aromas and flavors. Asian-influenced fare goes beautifully with a highly aromatic white wine like Gewürztraminer or Riesling; both have intense aromas and strong flavors.

Protein softens tannins. If you have a tannic red wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec, think a big steak or a hunk of rich cheese. The wine will seem softer and smoother. DW

Leslie Sbrocco is a wine expert and the host of the PBS series, Check Please! Bay Area, for which she has won a James Beard award and two Emmy awards.

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