Many restaurant customers dread the thought of dealing with a wine list. To them, it's right there alongside haggling with a car salesman or selecting a fine piece of jewelry. Deep down, people wonder if they are really getting a good buy.
In a restaurant situation, customers may bypass "the list" by simply asking the server for a glass of Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. While it's better than asking and settling for a glass of "white" or "red," this is not ideal in terms of getting the best bang for your buck in a restaurant.
The best way to get a good wine value at a restaurant is to become an educated consumer. You need to know a little about how restaurateurs price wines. In a restaurant, expect to pay two to two and a half times the restaurateur's cost for a bottle of wine; in a hotel's restaurant, the markup is easily three or more times the hotel's cost.
Very often a restaurateur will use a sliding scale pricing strategy, by which the less expensive wines carry a higher markup and the most expensive bottles take a more modest markup. For example, if a restaurateur pays $6 for a bottle of wine, it could land on the wine list at anywhere from $15 to $18. A wine that costs $60 and is widely available, on the other hand, will be priced using the lower end of the scale, at about $120. It's not unusual for some restaurateurs to be even more gentle with the markup in order to move the wine for the sake of cash flow. After all, restaurateurs like to say, "You can't take percentages to the bank!"
1. Focus for a moment on what you're in the mood for -- red or white. This alone cuts the list in half.
2. Skip the house wine. Unfortunately, these wines are most often purchased on the merit of their price, not their quality. Unless you are familiar with the house wine, don't bother because they generally carry the highest markup.
3. Scan the list quickly to get a quick fix on the average price of a bottle. If you see that most wines are in the $20s, $30s, $40s, and so on, try to stay within this median price range, where the markups are "average."
4. Go with a wine from the same region as the restaurant's food specialty. A good Italian restaurant, for instance, should have a solid selection of Italian wines. Ditto for French and South American.
5. Ask the server for a wine recommendation. If you happen upon an enthusiastic server, take a chance -- at least if ordering by the glass.
6. Buy by the bottle. If two or more people at your table are going to have a few glasses of wine, it is cheaper to order by the bottle.
Felicia M. Sherbert is the award-winning author of The Unofficial Guide to Selecting Wine (Hungry Minds) and former senior editor at M. Shanken Communications, publisher of Wine Spectator, Food Arts and Market Watch. When she is not writing, Felicia conducts private and corporate wine seminars.