Pick the right bottle like an expert―even if you're faking it.
Bottles of wine
Credit: James Merrell

In the Wine Store

It’s always a good idea to find a knowledgeable sales clerk, who will be all too happy to make recommendations within your price range. Narrow down your options even further by following these guidelines.

  • Trial and error works. All varieties taste like wine, but each is distinct. Sample a few different inexpensive bottles of each of the Basic Wine Varieties in order to zero in on the grapes you like.
  • Pick a brand you’ve heard of. Best-sellers in the wine world (like Robert Mondavi, Kendall-Jackson, and Beringer) are popular for a reason: They consistently offer good value for the money.
  • Don’t pick based on price. Don’t assume that a $20 bottle is twice as good as a $10 one. As with other expensive foods and drinks (like caviar and exotic cheeses), high-priced wines may take you into acquired-taste territory. For something that will be universally appealing, stick with lower-priced bottles.

For recommendations, along with expert advice on how to remember different wines, check out How Much More Memorable are Graphic Wine Labels?

In a Restaurant

How to decipher a restaurant wine list? To choose a high-quality, well-priced bottle, Andrea Immer, host of the Fine Living Network’s Simply Wine, suggests the following:

  • Know your budget. Have a clear idea of what you want to spend before you crack open the menu. A good rule of thumb is to take the price of the most expensive entrée as a baseline and then go up to about 50 percent more than that. If it’s $18 for the steak, your ballpark should be $18 to $27. Why use this formula? The restaurant assumes most people will pay about the price of an entrée for a bottle, so they work hardest to find good-quality wines in that price range.
  • Use the process of elimination. Eliminate half the menu by choosing red or white, then go one step further and choose by grape variety, picking one that is crowd-pleasing and versatile. A no-fail white grape is Riesling, and the red grape Pinot Noir is superb.
  • Take a taste. If you’re getting just a glass, ask for a taste of it before you commit. This is completely legitimate, and some restaurants will even serve you half a glass if you ask.

How to Handle Screw Caps, and Other Mysteries

Cork, a naturally occurring material, has its pros and cons. It creates the perfect environment for aging wines, but it is also susceptible to the formation of mold that can spoil the bottle. What’s more, it can break down or degrade, making it hard to get out of the bottle. Here, alternative methods of sealing and storing wine that you shouldn’t shy away from:

  • Screw caps. Screwcaps are gaining ground, so don’t worry about looking cheap for selecting a bottle with a twist-off top. It’s the perfect way to seal wine that’s not meant to be aged, and you can crack open a bottle even when you don’t have a corkscrew on hand, making it perfect for picnics.
  • Synthetic corks. Great because they pose no risk of cork taint.
  • Bag-in-box. A storage method that’s gaining ground, particularly in Australia, where higher-quality wine is being boxed. A box is a better value than its bottle counterpart, and it keeps wine fresh for about 30 days.

For some Real Simple recommendations, check out 12 Tasty Wines with Pretty Labels.