How To Avoid Embarrassing Yourself with a Wine List

The “Wine For Lawyers” series is written by sommelier and criminal defense lawyer Brian Tannebaum.

So there you are, you have gone to five tastings, bought a few cases of new wines, and you are now no longer just a boring lawyer, you are a wine guy (or gal). Your friends are excited about going with you to the local steak house because you know so much about wine.

You look at the wine list, ready to find the Caymus, and you do.

It’s $220 a bottle. With four couples, you will need at least two bottles.


Wait, there’s a 2003 Napa Cabernet for $59. Cool, an old wine. That will be impressive. Someone said something about a bad year in Napa between 2001 and 2009, you can’t remember which one it was, but the 2004 of the same Cabernet is $179. …

You’re stuck. Nothing else on this list is familiar to you, and you were supposed to be the wine person tonight.

Here’s how to make sure this never happens again.

Check Ahead of Time

Many fine restaurants have their wine lists online. If I’m going to a restaurant with an extensive wine list, I look for it online. If it is not there, I will call the restaurant. I have also been emailed wine lists from restaurants many times. If a restaurant will not send you their list, and doesn’t allow corkage, cancel the reservation. I’m serious.

What Is Corkage?

Corkage is the fee that a restaurant charges to allow you to bring your own wine — usually $15–25. Some restaurants charge more, but $15–25 is typical. Always ask if there is a limit to the number of bottles you can bring and if you are prohibited from bringing a wine on their list (both reasonable policies). Even when I bring wine, I usually order a bottle from the restaurant anyway – either a white to start, or something towards the end of dinner if my wine is gone. It puts the restaurant at ease. Always ask to see the wine list when the waiter notices you brought your own wine

Two Tips about Corkage

  1. It doesn’t make sense to pay money to bring your own $20 bottle. I know that sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised.
  2. If you bring a really nice bottle, offer the sommelier a taste. The best way to do this is by asking for another glass, then pour a little for the next time the sommelier comes to the table.

Because restaurants make money off the sale of wine (some more than others), most wine list pricing is two-to-three times that of retail. The way to figure this out is simple: find a bottle you know, and what you typically pay, and see what they are charging. If you don’t see anything familiar, find something close, excuse yourself, or be rude and go to Wine-Searcher at the table and see the retail price.

If you took my advice and spent the afternoon browsing the list and picked out that one great bottle, fantastic. But what do you do if the restaurant is out of that wine? This problem is easily resolved. Just tell the waiter or sommelier you wanted that bottle so pick out something similar.

If you did not bring your own wine, and you did not look at the list prior to dinner, here’s how to not embarrass yourself:

  1. When you are seated, review the wine list for a few minutes. When the waiter comes over, ask for the sommelier. It may be there is no sommelier, but that’s unlikely in a fine restaurant with an extensive wine list.
  2. When trying to select a bottle, simply discuss what you would like in terms of white, red, type of grape, full-bodied, light, whatever. You may be asked if you know what the table is ordering for dinner (steak, fish, pasta).
  3. Because you don’t want to say the price of the wine you are selecting (and the sommelier knows this), ask him or her to point out bottles on the list while you point to the ones in your price range.
  4. If price is not as much as an issue, and you know what you want because you have had the wine before but it’s not on the list, just mention it to the sommelier. Do you have anything similar to the ’07 Caymus? Yes, he or she will think you are a novice, but will understand the type of wine you want to drink.
  5. Another way to subtly convey that you’re not spending $200 a bottle is to tell the sommelier that you are going to be ordering several bottles. A good sommelier will get the hint that you do not intend to spend a fortune on each bottle and will test the waters by suggesting more moderate wines.
  6. Trust the sommelier. There is no joy in having a customer buy an expensive bottle and argue that it’s not good, only because the customer doesn’t know good wine. The sommelier is not there to sell you expensive wine; they are there to sell you wine you like. That may be a $300 Cabernet or a $39 Riesling.
  7. Try some by-the-glass options. Most restaurants with extensive wine lists have ten or so bottles of wine by the glass, red and white. If you are not sure, go that route first. Maybe the table will love that glass of Chardonnay you ordered for them and want to drink it all night. Unlikely, but anything’s possible.
  8. You can also drop a hint by bringing one bottle of something you like, that’s not too expensive, and telling the sommelier that you are going to need more wine and would like something similar to what you brought. If it’s a $25 cabernet, you won’t get recommendations for wines too far out of your price range.

One thing I’ve also done in the past that works out well is to buy the wine prior to arriving at the restaurant. The way to do this is simple. Obtain the wine list, speak to the sommelier over the phone, and order and pay for the wine prior to arriving. You can request that the wine be decanted (opened up) several hours prior to your arrival.

Enjoy dinner.

Featured image: “ Wine list on blackboard and wine bottle on wooden background ” from Shutterstock.


  1. Avatar Jeremy A. Rose says:

    Brian – thank you. I loved your book, love your tweets, and love your wine comments.

    I’ve been consuming wine for almost a decade and still don’t know what the hell I’m doing. To be completely honest, at my last client reception, I served wine from a box (it’s really not that bad, I think…)

    It’s all about perception, and maybe at this point my clients think I’m a well-read idiot so they put-up with my wine choices. Or maybe they’re just waiting to leave me for Brian Tannebaum.

  2. Avatar Lyn Anderson says:

    And this is why I don’t drink wine. Too many rules.

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