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How To Find Values On A Restaurant Wine List

by Tim Elliott on February 22, 2011

One of the most stressful moments for a lot of business travelers is not when the client has an objection or asks a difficult question but when they are handed a restaurant wine list. Depending on where you are dining this can be a selection of a few dozen to several hundred choices or even more in extreme cases. And since wine is a profit center in restaurants you will often pay two or three times the retail price for what you select. Since everyone wants a good value whatever their budget, here are the factors I look at before choosing a wine in a restaurant.

Wine List

Photo by Garrettc via Flickr

Don’t buy wine by the glass – Unless you are only drinking one glass at a table where no one else is enjoying wine then wines by the glass at most restaurants are not a good deal. Sure, they let you skip around and try new wines but rarely is that wine worth the $9-15 charged per glass. Instead look to see if they stock half bottles or sell wine by the carafe. In some cases, you will get a better deal by choosing a full bottle and just drink half leaving the remainder or, where the law allows, taking the unfinished bottle with you.

Don’t buy the cheapest wine on the list – All restaurants have a price floor for wine and generally pick some pretty poor values to populate the bottom of the list. I always look $5-10 from the price floor when assessing the selection in a restaurant. Most times, these are where the best values are to be found or slightly above. At the other end of the spectrum, higher priced wines tend to get lower markups unless they are one of the famous brands (see below) so also check out the higher priced selection if your budget allows.

Find out what the wine buyer likes – On most restaurant lists compiled by a wine buyer or sommelier you will get a sense for what they personally like from the selection. For example, if they have a lot of Rhône varieties on the list, I would narrow my selection down to these. Same for Burgundy, Cabernets or Italian wines. Much can be learned from just looking at what the selection is and narrowing the choices based upon what appears most from a region or variety perspective, then factor in your budget.

Ask the sommelier for advice – If you are in a restaurant with a sommelier ask them for a few picks. Give them an idea of what food you will be eating and what your general price range is and then put them to work. After-all, you are paying for their services in the marked up bottle price. I know a fair amount about wine but often get some great values I’ve missed on the list by just asking the sommelier.

Look to non-mainstream regions and varieties – Instead of ordering that Napa Chardonnay, Chilean Merlot or red Bordeaux blend look beyond the well known varieties and regions. Like Pinot Noir? Look for them from emerging regions like New Zealand, try an Oregon Gamay Noir or Beaujolais (many 2009’s, which should be on most wine lists by now, are outstanding). Instead of Chardonnay try Viognier, Marsanne or Roussanne. Most times the best values on a restaurant wine list come from these slightly “off-the-radar” varieties or regions.

Don’t buy brand names – Scan a wine list and you will see a lot of brands with big reputations. Opus One, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Château Pétrus, Dom Pérignon. While these might be nice wines to have with dinner they are likely to be the worst values on the list. Instead look for lesser known names or second labels of more famous brands. Leave the famous wines for billionaires and celebrities to splurge on.

Use the technology at hand – These days most business travelers have some sort of smartphone with a web browser. If you have an iPhone or Android smartphone apps such as Hello Vino or Cor.kz can be used to narrow your choices. Both Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator have useful mobile-friendly websites for subscribers, as well.

These are not hard-and-fast rules, as I still order my share of wine by the glass, but if you follow one or more of these suggestions you will likely end up with better values. And I’m always looking for new tactics that work so leave any I’ve missed here in the comments.

The Perils of Being “The Wine Guy”

by Tim Elliott on June 27, 2010

This week I attended a technology conference held by one of my clients. It has been a long time since I have attended such a gathering but the change of pace was welcome. Like in my past life as a tech marketer, I was “the wine guy” at a dinner. You know, the guy you give the wine list to in order to take the pressure off such decisions. Over the past 20 years I have been put in this position hundreds of times and have always come away justified.

Not this time, however.

First, in my defense, the restaurant we dined was really a “19th hole”, sports-bar type of place in a resort near O’Hare airport in Chicagoland. My dinner companions were tech CEO’s, retail journalists and my client. Easy, I thought, as I surveyed the bar and saw some good choices in craft beer on tap. The same person who chose those must have pulled together a decent wine list, or at least left the task to his liquor distributor.

When the wine list arrived I surveyed the contents. On one side of a normal sized menu were mostly supermarket wines arranged by style, subtle to bold, white, pink and red. I also noted that Riesling was misspelled, not a good sign (I before E, Especially after R, folks!). There were few of the standard “tent-pole” restaurant wines I normally gravitate to in such situations if there is nothing else interesting. In fact, there was only one such wine, a Napa Valley Cab that was the most expensive wine on the list.

Picking wines in such situations is always filled with peril but in this case my client was paying so I passed on the safe choice. After asking what everyone preferred and what food they were considering, it was clear we needed a medium bodied red wine. Longtime readers will remember I favor Zinfandel so I looked to see what they had. Only one, from one of the “3-R’s” but not in my top two choices of those “R’s”. Next on the list were two Aussie Shiraz from producers I have never had before. The rest of the list were your normal assortment of Merlot, Pinot and Cabernets; nothing notable except that over-priced Napa Cab I mentioned before.

When the time came to order the wine I selected one of the Shiraz picking the wine with the same family name as an executive in my client’s company. Since he is British, there was a chance there was some connection with this Australian wine. I knew my client would get it and hoped it was at least a standard example of the variety. I was wrong; very wrong.

The next part of my tale is not pretty. The wine in question arrived opened and full glasses were poured to my left until the bottle was empty when the waiter asked if we wanted a second bottle. Since the table was not served I ordered that bottle and the waiter left to fetch it. Those served wine smelled and tasted my selection and made funny faces. I knew there was a problem. Around this time, the person on my left pushed the glass my way saying she did not drink and thought I might want to try the wine. I swirled and lifted the glass to smell an unholy brew of volatile acidity, alcohol and blackberry, the latter in the very back.


I let everyone know the wine was bad and I would order something else to replace it. After tasting it was clear something went very wrong at the winery and what we had was a 16% AVA boozer with what could have been a few weeks of 100+ F days at sea. The waiter came back and said he would be bringing the second bottle out and I said this wine we bad and we would order something else. In short order I selected the Zin from the lesser of the “3-R’s”… at least it wasn’t their supermarket cuvée.

What happened next even surprised me as a Zin appeared on the other side of the table opened and poured before I could point out it was not the wine I selected. The waiter came over and said it was the wine I ordered quoting the number on the list as I pointed to the brand on the list that did not match. It seemed likely from the vintage this Zin was the last bottle in the same bin but I still wanted to get what I picked. As I tried the Zin I had not selected, I was happy that it didn’t have serious flaws other than being somewhat generic and tired (it was a 2005). The bottle I ordered finally arrived and everyone got some sort of Zinfandel that at least was drinkable.

I recount this tale as a warning to not stray from your game plan in these situations. Unless you know the wine you are choosing well, don’t take a flyer on something that might be a disaster. Next time I’m in such a situation, I’ll get that generic Oregon supermarket Pinot. Lesson learned.