How to Order Wine Like a Pro
Relax. Here are five tips to help you navigate the menu at your next business meal.
By Paul Kaihla

(Business 2.0) – You're at a nice restaurant in a strange city with a group of important clients. The waiter circles around and decides to hand you, of all people, the wine list. While you can fake it at the the two or three places you normally go, the truth is you don't really know the difference between a Beaujolais and a Pol Roger (one's a young red wine, the other a champagne). What do you do? First option: Panic and pass the list to the person next to you like the queen of spades. Better choice: Try these wining and dining survival tips. They'll help you find the best bang for your buck and make the wine menu a much less intimidating read. You'll soon be a natural at breaking open a bottle that also helps break the ice.

Decode the Menu

Chardonnay's versatility--and broad spectrum of flavors--makes it the most widely consumed grape in America and a staple on most wine lists. But in many European-themed restaurants, there's a good chance you won't see the word "chardonnay" on the menu at all. As a general rule, a wine from France or Italy is named for the region it hails from, while a wine from the Americas is named for the grape it's produced from, such as chardonnay. If you can't find a chardonnay on the list, don't panic. An equivalent in a French restaurant is Chassagne-Montrachet, named for a village in the province of Burgundy renowned for chardonnay grapes. Following the same rule for full-bodied reds, a California cabernet sauvignon translates to a red Bordeaux on a French list, a Chianti or super-Tuscan on an Italian one, and a Navarra in a Spanish restaurant.

Know Your Food Pairings

Everyone's heard that full-bodied reds go well with meats and cheeses, but did you know that they don't work at all with spicy foods? The heat in the spice exaggerates the heavy alcohol content and makes them taste harsh. Fusion cuisine doesn't need to spell confusion with the wine menu. When your guests' food selections are all over the map, from spiced lamb with a chickpea puree to sea scallops with chorizo-stuffed dates (these examples come from the Wave restaurant located inside Chicago's W Lakeshore Hotel), you'll need a wine that's versatile. Catherine Fallis, master sommelier and author of the Grape Goddess Guides to Good Living series, recommends a light, dry, and crisp white wine, such as a pinot blanc or a high-quality Orvieto. If your guests prefer red wine, choose a pinot noir; it's high in fruit and low on oak, which makes it pair best with spicier dishes. To satisfy all tastes, the best bet is to order one bottle of each. For dessert, avoid any wine drier than your dish--especially with chocolate. Skip the traditional champagne with your chocolate cake and instead try a white dessert wine like a Sauternes or muscat or a port-style red such as a Madeira.

Find the Best Value

Steer clear of the least expensive wines on the menu. Not only will that strategy keep you from looking like a cheapskate, it'll save you from getting ripped off. That's because restaurants save their biggest markups for their cheapest wines. Fallis suggests a simple rule of thumb for your upgrade. "Tack on at least $3 when ordering by the glass, $10 to $15 when ordering by the bottle," she says. "The more the wine costs the restaurant, the less they'll mark it up." Take L.A. celebrity hangout Le Dôme: One of its cheapest reds is a California cabernet made by Beaulieu Vineyards. At $30, the bottle costs more than triple the retail price. But the Antinori winery's 2000 Tignanello, a super-Tuscan sangiovese blend near the top of Le Dôme's list, is marked up by only about 50 percent.

Make Fail-Safe Bets

It's no secret that wine gets better with age. Great cabernets can take 20 years to reach perfection; as a rule you should avoid any that are less than four years old. If you don't, you'll end up with a cabernet that tastes tart and leaves you feeling parched. If your expense account won't stretch beyond a young red, substitute a zinfandel for the cab. Zins are ready to drink after just two or three years and are a much better value at this age. If you're going upscale, Peter Granoff, a master sommelier and author of more than 500 wine lists at restaurants worldwide, recommends that you first research the wine tastes of your guests. If they don't know much about wine but will recognize a popular brand name, order a California "cult" label such as Opus One, Screaming Eagle, or Silver Oak. If you have wine snobs in your group, avoid the famous brands altogether. Make a bigger impression by finding a wine list with a sleeper hit. At New York's popular Gramercy Tavern, a Bordeaux-style blend called Foxen 2000 Foothill Reserve is a great find--at $88 it's a fraction of the price of its more famous peers.

Don't Put On an Act

The rituals involved in "testing" a wine are often overdone. Have you seen someone smell a cork or repeatedly swish wine around between sips? Unless a bottle is undergoing extreme rot, smelling a cork doesn't tell you much. It usually just smells like, well, cork. Also, Granoff argues that describing a wine as having "great legs"--leaving long streaks on the side of the glass--doesn't tell you much either. "I could put motor oil in a glass and it would have nice thick legs, but you wouldn't want to drink it," he jokes. Here's a simple way to test your wine: Slightly tilt your glass and then gently rotate it; as the liquid coats the glass and evaporates, the wine's flavors and scents are accentuated. Bring the glass to your nose and inhale. You'll know if it's defective, or whether the best is yet to come. -- PAUL KAIHLA