We've all been there. You're at dinner with someone that you hope will find you appealing as a human being, whether it be to breed with, to do business with, or just to share stories about cats with. Then the wine list ends up in your hands and you either blindly choose something that you proceed to pronounce as "Cabinet Frank," or you freeze up completely.
As someone who has studied wine a little bit (and drank wine a lot), allow me to present one basic approach that will at the very least make you seem knowledgable, if not very breedable.
All you have to do is follow these 7 simple steps.
Start with how much you want to spend. And be direct, even if it's $40. Good restaurants take pride in having good values on their list, and the sommelier/wine person will be glad you told them regardless of your budget.
Decide between red or white. Do not say "white zinfandel."
Pick a country or large wine producing region. If you are unsure, play it safe and probably say France or California, just for the sake of simplicity and because you'll find bottles from both on almost every list. Italy will work too, but follow up questions may get awkward because there are so many grapes and regions in that country.
Choose either a style or a grape varietal. Style = light, medium, full bodied. Grape varietal = pinot noir, chardonnay, etc. In extremely simple terms, for California, pinot noir generally equals "light" while cab equals heavy. For France, pinot noir generally equals light, while Bordeaux equals heavy. My apologies to all wine experts reading this.
Be confident. Even if you have no idea what you're saying.
Ask for input. Leaving much of this open ended allows for the wine person to help guide you.
Never pronounce a "t." Just to be safe.
What you end up with is something like this:
"Hello, I'm looking for something in the $70 range, red, from California, preferably on the lighter side. Happy to hear your suggestions."
A good sommelier will appreciate your ability to articulate the basic things that you're looking for, and should lead you to a bottle you will enjoy. Even a staffer with little wine knowledge (the waiter who just started yesterday) should be able to bring you something relatively close to what you're looking for.
But most importantly, the person sitting across from you will be impressed with your ability to take control of the situation, even if you do end up confessing that you have no idea what exactly the two of you are currently drinking.
Confidence is 90% of the game.