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How To Properly Order Natural Wine at a Restaurant

We’ve all been there

One of life’s great pleasures is a night out at an exciting restaurant. Delicious food, attentive hospitality, and swanky surroundings all make for a memorable experience. There can be a bit of anxiety, of course, when someone hands you the wine list. Whether it’s a tight 8-bottle list or massive binder with hundreds of selections, you probably go through a process that looks something like this: First, scan quickly for a wine you recognize. If you see an old favorite, you’re good to go.

Failing that, look for a wine from the same region or made from the same grape, knowing that will get you pretty close to something familiar. This is a pretty fool-proof method, thanks to what wine professionals call “typicity.” 

Typicity is the idea that winemakers should aim to make wines that represent the signature characteristics of their region or varietal. So while every wine is unique, they should share some hallmark traits: cassis in Cabernet Sauvignon, green grass in Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, roasted meat in Syrah from the Rhone Valley. These shared traits set expectations and allow for a certain amount of confidence when ordering bottles from an unknown producer.

However, typicity is much less reliable in the natural wine world. Many natty producers eschew typicity in favor of new, unexpected flavors and profiles. This is part of what makes natural wine so exciting, but it can be a nightmare if you’re trying to pick a bottle at a restaurant with a focus on natural wines. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of a natural wine list.

Do some wine reconnaissance

Every time I try a new restaurant, I check out the menu online before I go. I want to have some idea of what the food is like, whether it’ll be served on small plates or family-style, do I need to wear a jacket, etc. Whenever possible, I do the same with the wine list. If I don’t see anything I know, I’ll search a few of the offerings to get a feel for what they’re serving. It’s easier to do this while I’m procrastinating at my desk as opposed to when the whole table is looking to me, resident wine guy, to make The Decision.

Ordering wine: glass or bottle?

One of the great things about natural wine is how varied and unexpected the wines can be, and the only way to experience that is by trying a lot of different wines. This can be tough to do when ordering full bottles, which is why a restaurant’s by-the-glass [BTG] menu can be such a lifesaver. Most restaurants will choose wines for their BTG list that pair exceptionally well with their food, and some offer great value for the price. 

While you’re probably not going to get into the most interesting wines in the cellar, a good BTG will be representative of the restaurant’s style and give hints as to what they look for in the wines they choose to serve. Plus, it’s better to make a $12 mistake than a $60 mistake. Hot tip: if looking to order from the BTG list, try for seats at the bar. The bartender will be able to take more time walking you through the choices and should let you taste before buying a full glass. Actually, if you’re just one or two people, always sit at the bar. It’s just better.

Who’s in charge?

While a bartender is a great BTG resource, there is no better authority than a sommelier when looking at full bottles. A somm in a good restaurant should know a little bit about every wine on their list and be able to answer any questions you have. I find that somms are excited to expose customers to the more unique wines in their cellar, and this is especially true at places with a natural focus. Whether it’s a producer the somm has an affinity for, or a rare wine from a lesser known region, the sommelier is the guide to the nooks and crannies of the wine list, where all the really fun stuff is hidden.

“I don’t like this wine. Now what?”

There are so many great natural wines being made, some with varietal typicity and some without. Some will barely taste like what you may expect wine to taste like at all. Try to check your expectations at the door and open yourself up to all of the new flavors and textures natural wine offers, but at the end of the day you shouldn’t have to drink something you don’t like. Maybe it’s a personal preference, or maybe it’s a flawed wine that is being passed off as acceptable because of the winemaking practices. Whatever the reason, if you’re served a wine you don’t like, you shouldn’t hesitate to say so. 

While a restaurant may not be able to eat the cost of a whole bottle of wine [another advantage to ordering BTG], they should do what they can to make sure you enjoy your experience. A huge red flag is a somm or waiter that hears your complaint and tries to make you feel like you don’t know what you’re talking about. The customer isn’t always right, but the customer should always be heard.

Selecting wine is supposed to be fun

Hopefully this advice makes ordering natural wine a more rewarding experience, but at the end of the day, none of this is particularly serious. When you’re handed that wine list and your friends are looking to you to make a selection, there is no wrong answer. Whether you order an old favorite or try something completely new, the point is to enjoy yourself, the meal, and the company. When all those things align, any wine will taste a little better.