This will be the first of a two-part series on restaurant wine. In this post we offer tips on how to be a wise shopper when ordering wine off the restaurant wine list.
How does a restaurant figure the price of the wine on their wine list? A restaurant owner once told me that he marks up all his wine $20 over what he pays for the wine. That means a wine he purchased for $15 is $35 on his wine list, a whopping 133% markup. A wine that he purchased for $45 is marked up to $65, a more reasonable 45% markup. In this case you can easily realize, the cheapest wine is not the best deal on the list. Other restaurants price their wines by doing an equal percentage basis across the wine list. Still others use some haphazard method based on the cost of their wine, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the cost.
How does a restaurant select wines for their list. Only the best restaurants have a full-time sommelier. It is the job of the sommelier to choose wines that match the restaurant’s food menu and to have a wide price range of wines to offer customers. Some restaurants hire consultants to select their wines, and finally others do it on their own. At one of my local restaurants, the owner has various winery distributors or sales folks bring in samples, and he and his staff taste and select wines for the wine list.
If the restaurant has a sommelier, this is usually a plus for the customer. Tell the sommelier your price range and what you plan to order for your meal. Most sommeliers take pride and pleasure in giving you advice. They put a lot of time and care into developing a wine list, and it is a delight for them to put their wine knowledge to use with you, the client.
Wines by the glass are always all over the map. Chances are whatever wine is by the glass is also available by the bottle. Do the math and see how the glass price compares with the bottle price. Of course this all depends on the pour. Most of the time it is 5 to 6 ounces, but sometimes even less. It is a good idea to ask the server the size of the pour. You might be better off ordering a half bottle of wine.
There are two things to watch closely when ordering wines by the glass. How do you know you are actually getting the wine you ordered? I like when they bring the bottle to the table, show you the wine, and then pour it. Secondly, if the wine has been sitting on the shelf half empty, the wine is likely to be spoiled. Smell and taste it carefully to assess its freshness. Many times a restaurant will give you a very small sample to taste before you order a full glass. Ask for a taste.
I hate when I choose I wine and the server comes back to tell me they are out of the wine. I always think, so why is it on the list? Ask for a wine in the same price bracket and don’t be duped into settling for a higher-priced wine.
I cannot believe how often a red wine is served too warm. Red wines should never be served over 68 degrees. Tell your server if the wine is too warm, and the least they can do is bring you an ice bucket to chill it down in a matter of minutes.
Wines at smaller or neighborhood restaurants have more of a chance of being corked. That means it is tainted with bacteria, so if you smell the slightest bit of wet cardboard or any other off-odors, send it back. Small restaurants often store wine poorly and have them standing up on the shelf too long.
Before I go to a restaurant, I like to check its Website and peruse the wine list. I’m guessing that about half the time a restaurant will have its wine list posted. Too bad it is not 100 percent of the time. Use wine-searcher.com or one of the many wine apps available to find the retail cost of the wine. If you have your smartphone you can do your research at the restaurant, but that might look a little on the geeky side.
I prefer to bring my own wine to a restaurant most of the time, a special bottle that I want to enjoy with my wife and friends. That will be next week’s post. If you have any horror stories on restaurant wine, please comment and share it with us here.