Exploring a wine list or the wine aisles?

Finding the Best Bottle for Your Budget

Take a tip from a pro: “Location, Location, Location” is the secret to finding the best bottle of wine for your budget. Throughout my 30+ years in the wine distribution industry, I have found that labels that tie wines as closely as possible to their grape source to be the best indicator of quality vs. price. This closely parallels the concepts of farm-to-table sourcing of foods as a measure of quality. Working within your budget, check off at least two of these three items from the bottle label:
1) Region/Appellation,
2) Sub-appellation,
3) Estate or Chateau bottled and/or named vineyard.
You will often see unfamiliar wineries on wine lists. Fear not! These small production boutique wineries represent some of the best examples of their varietals. Having tasted wine from countries, regions, appellations, sub-appellations, estates and vineyards across the globe, I follow these very same guidelines myself when selecting a bottle. I believe that there’s a taste of time, place and passion in every bottle.

Visit our new ProWine Guide for restaurant wine lists!

Champagne & Sparkling

The custom since bubbles were discovered is to celebrate special events, dinners or gatherings with a French Champagne or a nice Sparkling wine such as French Cremant, German Sekt, Italian Prosecco, Asti and Spanish Cava or a California methode champenoise (traditional method).  No worries when it comes to pairing with bubbles — they go great with everything!

I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad.
Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory.
I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am.
Otherwise, I never touch it — unless I’m thirsty.”
— Lily Bollinger, House of Bollinger Champagne

Palate Maturity

Knowing what you really like or your palate maturity level (what you currently drink and like) is critical to you making — or a sommelier or server helping you make — that Goldilocks selection. Wine lists range from basic one-pagers all the way to the thick leather-bound, gold-plated War and Peace book-sized ones.  After exploring one such as this, you might be rewarded much like a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Making the right wine selection to match your dish selection can lead to the most enjoyable dining experiences — think of dark clouds parting, sun shining through and angels singing “Hallelujah”. It’s that chemistry thing!

When choosing from a selection of wines by-the-glass (known as BTG in the industry), know that you can ask for a taste of one or more wines before making a final choice. Restaurants build that option into their BTG pricing and will cheerfully sample for you. If you select a wine and there are three or more of you, then buy the bottle, as it is always a much better deal for you (1 bottle = 4 pours of 6 ounces each).  Remember to hydrate with water adequately when consuming adult beverages.  If in doubt about your ability to drive afterwards, please call a friend or use one of the safe ride app options.

Pairing with Food


Don’t be timid about engaging the sommelier (it’s okay if you can’t pronounce it — abbreviate it to somm), wine specialist or server with questions as to suggestions of wine match-ups for your particular dish. Wait staff are trained to enhance your experience as much as possible. Ask the somm or server to suggest cool, new under-the-radar wines. You will often see unfamiliar wineries on wine lists. Fear not! These small production boutique wineries represent some of the best examples of their varietals. Remember to use the axiom “Location, Location, Location” as a checklist. Most domestic whites should be enjoyed within 3 to 4 years of vintage. The same goes for lighter-style reds unless the winery has reputation for long-lived ones. Most wineries produce wines for immediate consumption — no cellaring or decanting necessary. On most wine lists, you can usually find a very nice bottle of wine for $30 to $60. Whether you’re perusing a wine list or the wine aisles, don’t let yourself be talked into a big name brand. Spend a little extra time to explore and find that special new wine or brand. Make it a goal to drink a different wine every week and expand your palate maturity level and experience this amazing world of wine.


The importance that a great importer brings to finding a good bottle of wine is like a gold standard. Check the bottle’s back label for the importer’s name or logo. Following is a list of importers that have built well-known and trusted reputations by continually selecting outstanding varietals, regions and estates from around the world. Here’s an A-to-Z of these importers by region:

Europe and Australia: Becky Wasserman Selections, De Maison Selections,  Eric Solomon,  Europe Vin, Kermit Lynch, Louis/Dresser Selections, Mach Flynt/DC Flynt MW Selections, Mad Rose Group/Rosenthal Wine Merchant, Martine’s Wines, Robert Kacher Selections, Terry Theise Estate Selections, Vineyard Brands, Vintage 59 Imports, Weygandt-Metzler, Wilson DanielsWinebow Group
Germany: Rudi Wiest Selections
Italy: Dalla Terra, Indigenous Selection, Leonardo LoCascio, Massanois Imports LLC, Vias Imports Ltd, Winebow Group
Spain: Grapes of Spain, Jorge Ordoñez Group
South Africa: Cape Classics, Terroir Selections
South America: Paul Hobbs

Restaurant Wine Rituals

wine ritualThe ritual of tasting wine from a bottle that you’ve ordered in a restaurant can be intimidating, so here’s a quick guide. Not just for show, it also helps you determine if a bottle is acceptable or tainted . Wines with traditional cork closures may occasionally exhibit the chemical compound TCA. These days, cork-tainted wines account for 4% or less of the wines to hit the market. A winemaker may opt to use a Stelvin closure (screw cap) instead of cork. The type of closure does not reflect upon the quality of the wine, only the preference of the winemaker.

Step by step, here’s the cheat sheet on the ritual:

1. Presentation of the Bottle

The sommelier or server presents the bottle for inspection to the person who ordered the wine. Read over the label carefully to ensure that it’s the wine you ordered. Feel free to touch the bottle to determine whether its’ temperature seems to be correct. Whites should be chilled, but not icy cold. Reds should have a slight coolness to them. If you’re satisfied with the bottle, nod your approval to the server.

2. Removal and Inspection of the Cork

The server removes the cork and places it in front of you. Inspect the cork and sniff it to make sure it’s in good condition.
In rare instances, a wine may be so tainted that the cork itself will have an unpleasant odor. Even less often, the cork might be wet and shriveled or dry and crumbly. A less-than-perfect cork suggests that air has infiltrated the wine and spoiled it. Don’t be too quick to reject a bottle if the cork raises your suspicions. Wait to smell or taste the wine itself. Corked wines can range from muted aromas/fruit to full-on wet, moldy cardboard aromas and zero fruit. TCA is an equal opportunity spoiler impacting wine in every price range. In other cases the wine just needs some time to open up. If the bottle has a Stelvin closure, this step will be skipped.

3. Pour, Swirl, Sniff and Sip

The server pours a small amount of wine into your glass and waits. You swirl the wine in the glass, take a sniff, a little sip, and then indicate whether you find the wine acceptable. If the wine is fine, you can nod or say, “It’s fine.” If something is wrong with the wine, now is the time to return it.
If you decide that the bottle is unacceptable, describe to the server what you find wrong with the wine. If the sommelier or wine specialist agrees that it’s a bad bottle, he may bring you another bottle of the same, or he may bring the wine list in order for you to select another wine. Either way, the ritual repeats itself.

4. Serving the Table

If you accept the wine, the server pours the wine into your guests’ glasses and ends with yours.

Remember this: The best wine pairing is you and a glass of wine!
Cheers! — Dale Blankenship
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