Ordering wine in a restaurant used to be something I dreaded. As a freshly 21-year-old student, I didn't know which bottle was “correct” to pair with my meal. When a waiter would arrive at my table, the nerves would pile in, and I would ultimately order a cocktail with a simple name. In most cases, I did not enjoy it.

Eight months after becoming a legal drinker, I have become pretty familiar with wine night. My friends and I use it as a simple way to come together, talk, and share some of our favorite drinks. I was baffled to find out that the wine that I enjoy on these occasions is actually moscato, a sweet and fruity dessert wine… I should have known this when it was priced at $7.

But when I studied abroad in Paris last fall, I found that wine is so much more than a drink. Wine is based on mood, what you're eating, and what sweetness you like. Wine was such a cultural experience in France, it really shaped some of my fondest memories. It was something I shared with others and enjoyed in various locations across Europe. This experience was truly eye-opening in the world of wine, and now that I have experienced this, I’m here to tell you how you can, too, with some professional help as well. Here's a guide to ordering wine at a restaurant without feeling overwhelmed.

Should I order a glass or a bottle?

This is all about simple math. It’s something I faced in Europe with some not-so-nice Parisian waiters. If three or more people are ordering glasses of wine, it makes more sense to order a bottle. Bottle prices may seem daunting, but when split evenly, they can be quite affordable and usually less than a glass.

The first thing to know is when buying wine at a restaurant, it’s okay to ask to try it, especially if you are ordering by the glass.

“Wine by the glass is already open, so just tell your waiter you’re interested in tasting 1 or 2 to compare, then you get to see if you like it before committing,” Warner Boin, a Sonoma-based sommelier known as Confidenceuncorked  on TikTok, told Spoon.

What are the types of wine on a restaurant wine list? 

When deciding between red and white, cabernet sauvignon or riesling, that is completely up to you and your taste. Wine lists will be split between red, white, and sparkling (which is sometimes under the white section). Within each section, the types of wine will be listed denoted by region or grape variety, and the year, also called the vintage. We can’t list every type here, so here’s a quick and dirty list.

White wines

Sauvignon blanc is a light, dry wine, meaning it is generally not that sweet. It is often paired with fish and green vegetables.

Riesling is a light wine that also pairs well with fish and green vegetables.

Pinot grigio is a light-bodied and dry white wine that pairs well with light dishes such as salads, seafood, or chicken.

Chardonnay is a medium to full-bodied white wine; it goes well with meaty fish or shellfish.

Red wines

Pinot noir is a light to medium red wine that pairs well with salmon, pork, veal, duck, and nutty cheeses.

Malbec is a full-bodied glass of red wine, which is paired with red meats, steak, and cheeses.

Merlot is a red wine, often paired with mushrooms and fresh herbs.

Cabernet sauvignon is a full-bodied, acidic wine and is high in alcohol content. It pairs well with red meat.

Rosé is made with a blend of red and white grapes, giving it a unique flavor that is very popular.

Sparkling wines

Champagne is without a doubt one of the most popular types of sparkling wines. This wine originates from the region Champagne in France. Champagne pairs well with oysters, cheeses, and bread.

Prosecco is also a widely popular sparkling wine. This wine is made with glera grapes and comes in a range of sweetness. This pairs well with white meat and seafood dishes.

Should I ask for and interact with a wine manager or sommelier?

If the restaurant you are at has a wine manager or sommelier, the best thing you can do is ask for them and what you should order. Although it may seem scary at first, these people are the most qualified to help you find the right wine for you. According to Boin, you can tell them what you would like to eat and ask for pairing suggestions. If you have tried a wine you really liked before, you can let them know. This helps the sommelier get an idea of the profile you enjoy in order to make a suggestion you will enjoy.

One thing about this is that they may ask you about your budget, which can be super scary for a beginner ordering wine. Boin shared her best tip when it comes to this tricky question, a “sneaky trick” that you can do if this happens.

“Point to a wine on the list in your ideal price range and ask a specific question like, ‘What wine would you recommend pairing with (food dish) that's similar to this price range?’ They will absolutely pick up what you're putting down,” Boin said.

You can also ask them about lesser-known regions or styles that they are excited about. This tip is great because you are trying not only something new but also something that is probably more affordable than a high-demand item.

“I love doing this because it always gets the sommelier excited to share something unique and opens up your world to find new wines you might never have tried otherwise.” Boin said.

Although this process can be overwhelming, it is so worth it to expand your knowledge of wine. Wine is so much more than a $7 moscato you pick up at the liquor store. Exploring these flavors and pairings can invite you to a whole new world of food and culture. Starting off with these basic tips will kick start you to become confident when ordering wine at restaurants.