Entertaining an associate for lunch in a smart Hong Kong restaurant, the host opened the leather-bound wine list and his eyes fell upon the words 'Puligny-Montrachet'. 'Ah, I know that's a fine white burgundy,' he thought to himself, and ordered a bottle.
It was opened, it was poured - and it was red. While being famous for its white, Puligny-Montrachet does indeed produce a small amount of red, though of a lesser quality. In his haste, the host had failed to notice if he was viewing the white or the red section of the wine list.
Another crushing moment: a senior banker with a local bank suggested his important client choose the wines to go with dinner. That decision blew the banker's entertainment budget for a month.
Both incidents show the perils of finding one's way around a wine list. They used to be relatively easy to navigate, with a sparkling selection followed by white then red, and each section divided into country and region, with lower-priced wines listed first. These days, the list is as likely to be divided into wine styles (aromatic, crisp, light-bodied, powerful, and so on) or show the wines according to colour but in an arbitrary order.
The obvious solution to the list-challenged is to have a budget in mind and leave the rest to the sommelier. By using the same restaurants regularly and building up relationships with the staff, wine can be ordered in advance (without making it obvious that this has been the case), opened away from the table and tasted for cork taint or spoilage before being returned. The host can even be tutored on a few choice words with which to describe the chosen wine.
The best way for a novice to appear knowledgeable is to taste wine by the glass. Pick a grape type you like, a region whose name you can pronounce or a country whose geography you know something of. Taste and learn as much as possible within those parameters.
For example, say you choose pinot noir. You would soon know this red grape produces wines pale in colour, lower in tannins than many reds and higher in acid. You would know it is at its best in Burgundy, particularly in the sub-region of Cotes de Nuits, and that the king of them all is Domaine de la Romanee Conti. You would know it grows best in cooler regions, with Oregon in the United States and Martinborough in New Zealand being notable in the New World.
You would know one or two stellar New World producers, such as South Africa's Hamilton Russell and Ata Rangi from New Zealand.
Full of inspiration and confidence, you could take Alsace as your next vini-project. And so it would continue, until the wine list had been conquered.