6 Tips to Getting a Great Wine at a Restaurant

A close up of unidentified wine bottles lined up behind the bar

6 tips to ordering smarter. 

by Erin Henderson

I was a having a glass of wine with a friend recently. This person reminded me of a story that made splashy headlines when I was still a sommelier working in restaurants.

A posh Toronto steakhouse was discovered to be marking up bottles four times the wholesale price. It literally made headlines in a major daily. 

My friend, now on her third glass and clearly on a roll, went on to remind me of the fabulous scandal at a celebrity chef's Atlantic City steakhouse. Here's the punch line: a man asked for a recommendation for a bottle of wine for his table, and the server suggested one. The diner asked how much the bottle was and allegedly got the reply, "37-50." He gave it the green light. When the bill came, it turns out that "37-50" was actually short for three-thousand, seven-hundred and fifty dollars ... not the bargain basement price of thirty-seven dollars and fifty cents as this man says was his impression.

As you can imagine, this huge whoopsie caused a veritable shit storm across social media. At the time, the restaurant where I worked, which also sold wildly expensive bottles, a communique from the higher-ups was quickly dispatached to ensure the right bottle at the right price was served without error.  

a restaurant worker sniffing a glass of wine in a wine cellar

But since these restaurant legends of yesteryear still continue to make the rounds amongst those of us who have been victimized by the eye-wateringly priced wine lists, I thought I'd dig up a blog I wrote then about how to get the best wine you can for a budget you can afford. 

Now, before I go on, let me make clear that I am firmly on the side of free market and democracy. I believe that restaurants – or car dealerships, nails salons, or flower shops, for that matter – should be able to charge whatever they want for their products and services. Just as patrons are free to choose whether or not to frequent those businesses. 

I also strongly believe the majority of restaurant owners and sommeliers (at least the many that I know) operate with the highest integrity and have your best interests in mind – after all, negative publicity does nothing to bolster  business, careers, or reputations.

However, AI has not taken over the restaurant industry just yet, so human error is bound to happen. Here's how you can correct the mistake before it costs you your next few mortgage payments.

1. Ensure the price when you order the bottle

Yes, this gentleman at the centre of the steakhouse brouhaha did do that, but maybe dig a little deeper. Are you dining in the type of establishment where it seems likely a bottle would cost only $37? In this particular case, the wine reportedly was the cult classic (and extraordinarily rare) Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon from California, which, today, sells on average for nearly $4,000USD per bottle. 

When I was working in restaurants a tried-and-true trick I used frequently, as did many of my colleagues, was to physically point to the wine my guest was ordering, repeating the name of the wine. This drew my guest's attention to the exact wine I thought he or she wanted, including the price point. This was a quick and easy way for both of us to be satisfied we both understood what was being ordered.  

2. Look at the bottle when it's presented

So many times I've presented bottles to tables only to be ignored, or at best be cast a fleeting sideways glance.

True story: a few years ago, I was pouring a Sauvignon Blanc the diner ordered, and approved when presented the bottle, only to have him shriek as the white wine hit the glass. He had wanted red! Of course, the bottle was quickly taken away and replaced with the Cabernet Sauvignon the host had meant to order (the Sauv Blanc was sold off by the glass and the guest wasn't charged), but the minor hiccup could have been avoided by simply giving 10 seconds of attention to what was being presented.

Related: How to Drink Wine Like a Pro

3. Buy a bottle

Generally speaking, By The Glass programs have heavier mark ups than By the Bottle. In my experience, a glass of wine is usually the wholesale cost of the entire bottle, and maybe a bit more. It's easy to understand why: over-pours, spillage, and having the wine turn before it's all been sold are all reasons for the hefty price.

Economically, you're better off buying a bottle and taking home the rest (if the restaurant allows for that.)

4. Avoid Famous Wine Growing Regions

It's basic supply-and-demand: wine regions like Napa Valley, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Barolo all come with price tags as large as their reputations. When restaurants are marking up bottles as much as 300% and more, those dollars add up fast.

If you're looking to cut costs, ask your sommelier for good-value finds, or travel to less fashionable regions like Languedoc, Puglia, or Greece.

Related: How to Save Money Buying Wine

5. Order ahead of time

Another option guests regularly exercised was to either visit or call the restaurant ahead of time and discuss wine options and budget with the sommelier or manager. 

This practice works for so many reasons: not only were diners guaranteed a bottle in their budget, but also allowed the somm (us) to get it ready for their arrival – and the host didn't have to take his attention away from his party while humming and hawing over the wine list.

Believe it or not, this can also be a relief to the restaurant staff, as they really do want to make your stay an enjoyable one – and see you, and your money, return. The nightmare scenario of the three-thousand dollar bottle is enough to strike fear into the hearts of servers everywhere.

6. Beware non-alcoholic options

This one's an outlier since we are talking about ordering from the wine list. But NA is gaining more and more appreciation, so I feel it's worth mentioning.

At another restaurant where I worked, we had a terrific fresh juice program full of wacky and wonderful combinations made daily. I was serving a large corporate lunch, where those returning to work understandbly prefered a non-alcoholic drink. Many ordered the juice. At the time (this was years ago) a glass of juice was more than a glass of house wine. Not that money should be the motivating factor in whether or not to order alcohol, but I wonder how many would have selected that juice if they had known. 

Buyer beware: non-alcoholic isn't always the penny-pincher you thought.

 

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