Don’t let a wine list leave you daunted— follow these tips.

Navigating a wine list may seem like an easy thing to do, especially when there is a sommelier available to answer all your questions. However, not every restaurant has the luxury of offering a sommelier. In these situations, there may be a way to find something better than your normal “standby” and still get something that you really enjoy.

SEEK OUT WINES FROM YOUR FAVORITE REGION

The easiest wine lists to navigate are the ones that are arranged by variety. All the Cabernets are lumped together, all the Chardonnays are put into one section— you get the drift. Some wine lists go even further and sub divide those sections by region of origin. However, in my experience, the wine list that does this is typically that one that has a fairly large selection. Smaller wine programs do not go that far. Th is is where we have to dive a little further into the details on the wine list. No matter how large or small the wine list is, a wine list should detail the region and origin of the wine. It can be listed by country, state, region and even by appellation. Th e more refined and exact the detail will depend on the philosophy of the wine program director. But at minimum there is some information detailing not only what grape goes into the wine but also where the wine comes from. For example, if you like Cabernet-based Bordeaux blends from Pauillac, but do not know all of the Chateaux in that region outside of Lafite, Latour and Mouton, by looking at the origin of the Chateau you would see that it also comes from Pauillac. More obscure Chateaux such as Grand-Puy-Lacoste or Pontet-Canet are good examples of Pauillac Chateaux that can provide very good drinking and superb values. So knowing the origin of your favorite wines is very important. Finding wines that come from the same region as your own favorites is a safe bet to find a wine that you will enjoy.

EXPLORE “LESSER” VINTAGES

Along with this strategy, another great tip for finding great value on a wine list is to find great producer’s wines from so-called “lesser” vintages. Great vintages, especially for European wines come at a great premium because of the demand placed on them by writers, critics and the general market. However what makes a ‘great’ producer great is that they make wines that are exceptional even in vintages that are not as highly praised. Take a white Burgundy for instance. A bottle of 2002 Domaine Roulot Meursault Perrières 1er Cru may be listed on a wine list for $400 whereas the 2001 vintage is at $300. This is the same vineyard made by the same top producer and is drinking wonderfully at less money. Unless you are ready to pay a premium, avoid shopping for the top vintages.

DO SOME MARKUP MATH

Speaking of money, it is easy enough to run your finger down the price column to find a bottle of wine in your price point. But you would be surprised to know that most wine programs give guests the opportunity to get better wines at a better price by spending a little bit more. Huh? Here’s how it works: Wine list pricing is set to a certain target percentage as a “pour cost.” So if someone wants to make a 25 percent pour cost (PC) on a bottle that costs the restaurant $10, they would sell it for $40. Most restaurateurs use a sliding scale where the lower-priced items typically have lower PC versus bottles of wine that are more expensive. As a bottle of wine gets more expensive, the less velocity or sell through the wine will have and the opposite is true for lower-priced bottles. So typically wines that are $60 and below have a higher markup than bottles that are $60 to $100 and bottles that are $100 or more have even less of a markup. Case in point, that bottle of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon that you are looking at spending $90 a bottle for probably cost the restaurant somewhere around $30.

But when you look at a bottle of Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for around $100, that bottle probably cost the restaurant around $50. So you may pay a little bit more but I think the additional $10 is worth it for the value of a smaller mark up and maybe even a better wine.

FIND A COMMON THREAD

It also pays to pay attention. If you dine around often, you will get used to seeing certain wines on a wine list whether it is Conundrum or Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon. And you will see the differences in prices that one restaurant charges for it versus the last one you visited. Chances are that if you see a wine list that has a very recognizable name brand wine on the wine list at a lower price than the other one, the rest of the wine list is priced more competitively as well.

Being a wine connoisseur is not just about finding great wines. With unlimited funds, anyone can do that. We all want to drink great wine. Making your money go further while drinking great wine in my book is even better.