Six Tips for Ordering Wine in Restaurants

Here’s a convenient list on why wines get marked up, and how to get the best deals and service when ordering. The list is compiled by EBT who interviewed some trade experts.

  1. The highest-priced bottles have the lowest markups

If you are determined not to pay more than £25 for a bottle of wine, you might be missing a great deal, said Mark McDonald, chef and co-owner of Old Vibe Kitchen & Bar in Costa Mesa. “Sometimes it can take a year or more to sell 12 bottles of £150 wine,” he explained. “Typically, if I did a standard markup on that it wouldn’t be approachable, and it would be harder to sell. We want people to experience some of these wines that are a little more special, and that are a higher price point. So, we take less of a margin on those.”

  1. Wine by the glass has the highest markups

The “I’m going to save money by having just one glass” plan doesn’t always work out as cost-effective. After all, many restaurants charge the same or nearly the same price for a glass as they would for the bottle. That’s because if they serve one glass and the rest of the bottle doesn’t sell in a week, it will not be at its best, unless they’re using a Coravin or similar, and therefore they’ll have to throw it out anyway.

The per-glass price of a bottle that’s £10 wholesale would be £12. Even if it’s only marked up double £20 when it’s sold by the bottle, you buy two glasses of wine, and you’re spending £24. Might as well buy the bottle and get four glasses for £20.

Lawry’s Restaurants solved that problem by narrowing down its by-the-glass selection. “We did some analysis on it. If you have the right amount of wine by the glass for the restaurant, it really doesn’t cost any more,” said Laura Ratner, director of service and training at Lawry’s Restaurants Inc. “It’s like, if I’m going to have a glass and a half, two glasses, as is my dining companion, then definitely get the bottle and yes, you’re more assured of a higher quality product, you know exactly how long it’s been open. It just makes more financial sense.”

  1. The wine service you get at a restaurant can’t be replicated at home and that’s why you’re paying extra
  • It is a fact that most restaurant wines come directly from wineries or a trusted distributor or agent. Bottles don’t sit around at room temperature on supermarket shelves, or worse, out in the sun on a loading dock. They have been stored at the restaurant cellar, often in temperature-controlled areas, which is part of the restaurant’s footprint;
  • The selection is always going to be better than the average person could own or store themselves, sometimes with hundreds of bottles or more. Restaurants have well-trained staff, sommeliers and general managers on hand to answer any questions about the wine and to hear from you about what kinds of wines you like. Most good restaurants will have made sure their team attend wine tastings at work led by experts from distribution companies or wineries; and
  • The glassware must be sturdy. When fine dining rooms use fancy, fragile glasses, they could be losing a dozen a week. In most restaurants, when the wine list gets revamped, the glassware also receives an upgrade.
  1. Don’t think you’re paying a sommelier’s salary

Starting in the late ’80s, the number of people getting sommelier-certified saw an uplift. Fine dining restaurants at the highest levels still might have somms, but most restaurants, even upscale chains, can’t afford to pay a somm full-time so that expense is not getting passed on to wine buyers. Most often restaurants require waiters and general managers to study wines served and/or get some sommelier training.

“We can’t afford to pay somebody hourly to come in just to open wine between six and nine o’clock, it doesn’t make sense,” said Lewis. “I’m like an acting GM. I do the wine service. I’ll open wine all day long.”

  1. The most popular wines are sold at the lowest prices

Restaurants won’t excessively mark up a well-known wine. “Don’t forget, people now have their iPhones when they’re going to a restaurant,” said Tony Maalouf, restaurant manager at the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa in Riverside. “They have an idea what they’re buying and they know what the market price is for that wine,” he said.

  1. Corkage fees: Remember the rules of engagement

Bringing your own wine has become more common in some venues aiming to keep overheads down, especially during and post-pandemic. But we often need to remember in these instances that wine is the only thing on the menu for which you can name your price. Remember, if you bring your own wine then it’s only courteous to show up with something that’s not already on the wine list, especially a bottle you’ve been saving for a special occasion. It’s also considered a nice gesture to offer the server a taste.

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