Ordering Wine: The Ultimate Cheat Sheet

Scott Clevenger
4 min readMay 21, 2021

All You Need to Know in Four Easy Steps

With the possible exception of beer, there is no more populist potable than wine. In France, Italy, and Spain, it’s on every dinner table, as common an accoutrement as the salt and pepper shakers. Europeans imbibe wine for lunch, dinner, and dessert. They use it to wash down an afternoon snack of goat cheese and crusty bread in places where both wine and goats are plentiful. Grandmothers rub it on the gums of teething babies. Wine isn’t a delicacy, it isn’t an occasion, it just is.

But many Americans fear the grape. Or rather, they fear the person behind the grape. The snooty waiter; the white-jacketed wine steward; the condescending sommelier; the man whose supercilious air is due largely to his ability to correctly pronounce the word “Gewürztraminer”. (I’ve long suspected that Zinfandel is so popular solely because it’s almost impossible to mispronounce. On the other hand, it’s a name that sounds less like a fine wine, and more like a bad magic act, the kind you’d see in a motel lounge way off the Las Vegas Strip. The Royal Flush Room presents the Amazing Zinfandel! And his monkey, Pinot Noir. But I digress.)

Despite the hauteur reeking from certain corners of the wine-fancying world, there is no real reason to be overawed by a beverage that frequently gads about under such names as “muscatel” or “cold duck”. Even port, which is arguably the snootiest of all after-dinner drinks, often goes by the name “Tawny,” just like certain employees of Bob’s Classy Lady near the Van Nuys Airport. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that a good bottle of port will cost about the same as a decent table dance. But again, I digress.

Unlike beer, or other beverages that are just as good when consumed solo, wine and food are made for each other. For most of the Western world, a meal has been incomplete without wine ever since we stopped gathering in caves to nosh on a raw hunk of mastodon brisket. And yet, for many Americans, this is still a new idea. Perhaps because they weren’t raised with wine on the dinner table and still associate it with the effete fellow in the short white jacket, toting that leather-bound list of tongue-twisters.

But learning to appreciate wine is largely a matter of experiencing wine. Like sex, or any other sensual pleasure, there’s a lot of misinformation clinging to the subject of wine. But, again like sex, mastering the subject requires nothing more than an open mind, and a lot of trial and error.

Following are a few tips to help simplify the sometimes-intimidating process of selecting and enjoying a bottle of wine.


Once you learn how to pronounce the varietals like Bordeaux (bor-doh) or Beaujolais (boe-zhu-lay), there’s still the occasional foreign winery to contend with. But if you find yourself facing a particularly impenetrable name, you can often default to ordering by bin number (originally a pointer to the wine cellar section where the vintage was kept).

Bonus Pronunciation Hack: If you decide to finish off a particularly fine meal with a postprandial dram of port (highly recommended), remember: the “ck” in “Cockburn” is silent.


I don’t mean to kink shame, but…don’t.

Some servers will pass you the cork when they open the bottle. Despite what you may have seen in movies, sniffing the cork is not required, and will yield no useful data about the vintage you just ordered. However aromatic the wine may be, the cork is more likely to smell like a bulletin board soaked in salad dressing. Just nod politely, and set it aside.


The server will display the bottle before opening it; simply glance at the label to confirm they’ve brought what you ordered. Having uncorked the bottle, the server will decant about a finger of wine into your glass. Here is where most budding connoisseurs meet their Waterloo. What are you supposed to do now?

Bring the glass up to your nose and inhale. Place the glass on the table, and holding the stem, move it in a small circle, swirling the wine, which aerates it and liberates the aroma. Bring it to your nose again. You’ll notice a much more complex fragrance this time, one that may contain hints of anything from toffee to citrus. Try to identify what you’re smelling; you may detect the faint, mingled scents of flowers, nuts, wood, earth, fruit, leather, coffee, berries, or even chocolate. Now take a sip and let the wine linger on your tongue. With your olfactory sense saturated by its aroma, you will likely experience the taste of the wine more vividly. Pronounce yourself satisfied, and the server will pour for the rest of your party.


Occasionally, you may select a wine that does not agree with your palate. Suck it up. Generally speaking, you are only justified in sending back the wine if it has turned to vinegar in the bottle. During the course of a long wine-drinking career, this has happened to me only once, with a Chianti I ordered at a little Italian restaurant on Duval Street in Key West. Happily, the management supplied another bottle, and even more fortunately, the bad wine later proved highly effective at stripping the marine varnish off my rowing scull.



Scott Clevenger

Screenwriter, blogger, mal vivant. Co-author of “Better Living Through Bad Movies.” Co-host of The Slumgullion podcast. On Twitter @Scottclevenger