Wine Hacks

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.

Removing a cork without a corkscrew

by Tim Elliott on July 26, 2007

Reader Sorin from Edmonton, Canada sent me a couple videos he has recently made but this one really impressed me as a great wine hack worthy of Lifehacker. Let us know what you think in the comments but have you ever seen anyone do this? No, me neither ;-)


Open A Bottle Of Wine Without CorkscrewThe funniest videos clips are here

How to uncork your corked wine

by Tim Elliott on April 3, 2007

Does plastic really attract TCA?We have all been there. You open the bottle and pour your first glass. The color is almost always fine but you know you are in trouble as soon as you smell the wine. Musty, no fruit, flat, wet cardboard… yes, my friends, you have a corked wine on your hands.

This is caused by a cork tainted with Trichloroanisole, or TCA for short. Some also blame barrels and contaminated wood in the cellar but to me it’s mostly the corks fault (after all, we don’t call it, “barreled”). Somewhere between 3 and 7% of all wine sealed under cork are affected by this problem and there is not a whole lot a winery can do to prevent it but adopt screw caps.

So it was with a great deal of skepticism that I scrutinized the following wine hack sent to me by a reader. Since it was published in the Los Angeles Times, I will give it the benefit of the doubt but it seems unbelievable.

Basically, the article calls for pouring the corked wine over plastic wrap in a pitcher and soaking for a few minutes. The author claims that the TCA is attracted to the plastic and once the plastic is removed the wine can be enjoyed without this defect. This is either the greatest wine hack of all time or an elaborate hoax. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has tried this with or without success.

Until I try this on my next corked bottle, Vino Emptor ;-)

Wine Spectator Headlines Hack

by Tim Elliott on February 6, 2006

I haven’t noticed many wine hacks of late, so when I read Jathan’s post over the weekend I was intrigued. It seems that the good folks over at the Spectator have not blocked Google bot access to some of their premium content (most likely by design to gain higher page rank). So all you need to do is Google an article’s name — freely available on their website — and then click on the “Cached” link on the Google search page to read the full article. There seems to be a delay of a couple of days, but that is a small price to pay for the content.

Some examples:
Lost Treasure Found in Santa Barbara
Tasting Highlights: 2001 Brunellos
ZAP Wrap-up

This only works for the “Headlines” and not other premium content on the site, so the hack does not replace a subscription. I’m also seeing if this can be exploited at other wine pay sites.

Cheers, Jathan!

Wine Collector 150

by Tim Elliott on October 16, 2005

Now here’s some technology that is likely to make things better for keeping track of large wine collections that looks to be competitive with CellarTracker. The Wine Collector 150 supports Bluetooth and reads wine bar codes. It’s Mac or Windows software then populates the producer, varietal and other metadata about the wine which is saved to their online database. Hopefully it supports export for those of us who prefer CellarTracker and I’m sure there are other bar code solutions that are more cost effective than $200-300 dollars. Looks like something to check out, however, if you have several hundreds, or thousands, of bottles to keep track of.

Mobile Cam Phone Wine Hack

by Tim Elliott on September 1, 2005

Later the same day I posted about wine hacks, Lifehacker posted a great one involving a camera phone and a bottle of wine. Most excellent, since I just got a Nokia 3220. The quality is not great, but it just might be good enough for our purposes :-)

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