It can happen to anyone, even someone in the wine industry.
A couple in London with her parents walked into a famous restaurant for dinner. The man, being in the wine industry, was tasked with ordering a bottle for the table. He chose a sublime second-growth Bordeaux that was enjoyed by all.
When the wine steward returned, the table agreed that a nice California cabernet would be a lovely second bottle. The steward stepped in, telling the man and the rest of the party how he would prefer a nice Italian Barolo to follow up on the second growth.
When the check came, the foursome had a story to talk about the rest of their lives.
Instead of the relatively affordable cabernet, the Barolo second bottle had turned out to be much more expensive. The lesson? If asked to be in charge of the wine at a restaurant, stick to your guns. There really is no wrong answer — unless choosing something those drinking the wine won't or don't like.
Ordering and tasting the wine at a restaurant table needn't be difficult or embarrassing (like getting stuck with a bill for a $400 bottle of wine instead of one that cost $100).
Here's how to simplify the process of ordering and tasting wine at a restaurant, and in the process perhaps look like more of an expert than anyone with you would expect.
Know what you like. This is important, and can be determined for the table with a quick conversation before ordering. Rather than worrying about pairings (chardonnay with fish, big reds with steak), find out what people enjoy. If everyone is getting steak, but nobody enjoys the tannins of a cabernet sauvignon, don't order one. Maybe you really like riesling. Then order that. Despite what some of the snobs out there will tell you, wine is better — no matter what you are eating — when you drink what you like.
Check the cork. Okay, not everyone gets this step. But the cork (assuming the wine doesn't come with a synthetic cork or screwcap) can warn a taster of what may be to come. If a cork shows signs of leakage or exposure of the wine to air — staining along the sides, a musty odor or potentially even a mold formed on the bottom — it may be a bad or "corked" bottle.
Smell the taste. The waiter or wine steward should pour just a half-ounce or so into the taster's glass. Pick up the glass by the stem, swirl the wine, then stick a nose inside the rim of the glass and inhale the aromas. Again, a musty or wet cardboard odor immediately indicates the wine may be bad and should be returned for a new bottle.
Sip the wine. If the aromas wafting about the nose are pleasant, fruity, flowery or myriad other adjectives, taste the wine.
"Yes, it's great," is a typical response at this point.
There are two things to understand about determining whether a bottle of wine ordered in a restaurant is okay to consume or not.
First, this is not about deciding whether a wine is liked or not. Just because someone at the table may not "like" a wine doesn't mean the wine should be returned. The decision to purchase the particular wine has already been made. The tasting process is to check whether the specific bottle meets the standards of the winery, winemaker and restaurant serving the bottle — not whether the patron actually enjoys drinking the chosen product.
And second, actually tasting the wine may not even be necessary. Once the taster has smelled the wine, he or she generally will be able to tell whether the bottle is "good" or not. The process can be halted at that point.
Of course, where's the fun in not getting to try what has already been determined to be worth consuming? So go ahead, taste that wine. And be sure you know what it is you've ordered — or the meal check could rise quickly.