If you’re like us when you go out to dinner, the wine tab usually exceeds the food tab. It’s simply the perils of loving wine. So, when dining out, use these tips to get the best wine value you can, whether it’s for a bottle or glass.
Restaurants vary in how much they mark up wine. It’s no surprise that higher end restaurants have markups higher than their moderately priced counterparts. But regardless of where you go, keep in mind that ordering a lower priced wine on the menu is not necessarily your best value.
For example, I recently dined at a steakhouse and a bottle of a widely distributed Napa Cabernet that would ordinarily be about $20 at a local retailer was $80 on the menu, which is a 4-time markup! However, a red blend from a lesser known producer that would retail for about $55 was $95 on the menu (less than twice the markup). Although this bottle still sets you back $15 more than the other option, it is a clear winner in terms of markup comparison. So if you can afford the splurge, go for the handcrafted, boutique wine that you wouldn’t be able to easily find in stores.
Before placing a wine order, first Google or check your local retailer’s web site (BevMo, TotalWine, etc.) for the wines you are considering on the menu to get a ballpark price. In some cases, wine producers may make a restaurant-only wine so you may not be able to find the exact one, but getting an idea of their general pricing can help.
As mentioned above, the red blend was a much better value than the Napa Cab and, by the way, blends typically do offer better value on wine menus. So what else offers good value? Generally speaking, the higher demand for more popular wine varietals and regions, like Napa Cabs and French Bordeaux, can drive up the price for those wines. Instead, look on the wine list for a section titled Unique, Interesting, or Other Reds (or whites). These often feature less expensive varietals, like Zinfandel, as well as gems from Spain, Argentina and other regions and countries that have lower priced wines.
If the restaurant has a wine specialist, tell them the kind of wine palate you have. For example, if you like the style of a bold Cabernet, they might recommend an Argentinian Malbec or Spanish Monastrell (Mourvedre). If there is no wine specialist, another alternative is to ask for a taste of it first if they serve it by the glass.
Speaking of ordering by the glass, what I previously mentioned about markups and going unique also applies to glasses and, of course, the best time to take advantage of special pricing is during happy hour. What can make ordering by the glass fun is the ability to be able to try different wines. And, if you are dining solo or the only one in the party drinking wine, ordering by the glass may be the only option.
Keep one thing in mind, however, when ordering by the glass—there is a higher chance for spoilage, especially if the restaurant has a large by-the-glass menu. In fact, I am often wary of a large by-the-glass menu, unless it is a wine bar or busy restaurant that is turning bottles quickly. Otherwise, it is possible that the bottles could have been open for several days, which can adversely impact the quality of the wine, particularly if they have not been stored properly.
Ask which wines have recently been opened. If the one you want was opened three days ago, don’t feel bad to ask if they can open a new bottle. I have done this numerous times and have yet to be turned down. They are especially amenable if your table plans to order more than one glass of it. If you do order a glass and don’t know when it was open but it smells off or tastes off, it’s likely not you but a problem with the wine. So simply return it and ask for something else or request they open a new one.
Because weather patterns can make growing conditions great one year and challenging for another, this means the same wine can be quite different from one year to the next. For example, in northern California, 2011 was a tough year, but 2012 was a star.
Sometimes restaurants may have outdated wine menus and serve a different year than what’s on the menu. One time I dined at a restaurant that featured a 2012 Cabernet on their menu, but the sommelier brought a 2011 to the table. So when a server shows you the bottle, verify the vintage to ensure you are getting the year they promoted. (Note: Just because a wine came from a lower-rated vintage, it does not mean it is poor quality. A good winemaker can salvage a less than stellar harvest. But if a better vintage is available, snap it up!)
You don’t need to be a savvy wine consumer to know how each vintage stacks up. Wine Spectator has a great little app you can download that provides ratings for recent vintages for the various major wine regions in multiple countries. When you first open the app, it gives you the option to subscribe with a free trial or to bypass that and access free content. Simply go with the free content. Within seconds, you can choose the region and varietal (e.g. Sonoma Cabernet) and determine if a vintage got 92 or 83 points. Look it up on the Apple or Android stores under the keywords “Wine Ratings.”
Most restaurants will allow you to bring your own bottle of wine for a fee, as long as it is not a wine they offer. I have seen fees as low as $10 and as high as $35 or more. In rarer cases, you may encounter a restaurant that offers free corkage. I have seen only one restaurant in my lifetime offer free corkage for as many bottles as you bring! But, more often, a restaurant that offers free corkage may do so for only one bottle and/or they may require you also purchase a bottle from their menu. And, don’t forget that some restaurants have specials and may offer free corkage on a certain night of the week.
Most restaurants who offer free corkage don’t promote it. And, a Google search on BYOB restaurants in your area can be spotty at best. So always call the restaurant ahead of time and inquire about their corkage fee and/or any specials they offer.
Whether it is Wine Down Wednesdays or Merlot Mondays, many restaurants offer half-price bottle nights. In fact, we have a prescribed dining out schedule based on which nights certain restaurants offer half-price bottles. For example, there is a restaurant group called Be Nice in the Fort Lauderdale area and they have multiple restaurants. Each restaurant features half price bottles on different nights of the week. Talk about creating a loyal wine following!
Like corkage fees, many restaurants will not promote these specials online, so call ahead of time and start building your list.