I find that many diners in my (our?) demographic are intimidated by restaurant wine lists, that they’re unsure even where to begin and so instead opt for a glass of the house Chardonnay or Cabernet and move on with their dinner. This is too bad. It’s also understandable. A lot of restaurant wine lists are shitty at best.
Humbly submitted for your consideration, a bit of assistance in ordering a bottle of wine at a restaurant.
First, let me clear up a misconception about wine and its pricing at restaurants. Generally speaking restaurants mark up their wines 3x – 3.5x the wholesale price. Many LA establishments push that markup to 4x and beyond, which I find disagreeable but it’s a reality. Compare that to your standard retail margin of about 1.4x wholesale and, yeah, restaurant wines look expensive.
However, the margin is considerably less than most any other beverage. That $10 martini contains about $1.50 worth of booze and a $6 pint of Fat Tire costs about 60 cents wholesale. And just as you can open a bottle of wine at home and drink it you can also mix a cocktail and crack a bottle or even buy a kegerator. The wine margin is the lowest of the bunch but requires more labor than beer and only marginally less labor than liquor to maintain. Plus, a bottle of wine is a solid 4+ drinks, so a $35 bottle of wine is a better value than four $12 cocktails.
That being said, if you go into a restaurant and its wine selection is made up entirely of BevMo, CostCo and Albertson’s selections, I suggest you take your money elsewhere. One reason to spring for wine at a restaurant is that you’re ordering wine that is less available than most grocery store wines and has been carefully selected to compliment the restaurant’s cuisine. If it’s just a bunch of well-known labels haphazardly thrown together, it’s not a very good wine list. This is a good indicator too that the food will be less than pristine and the service will be cursory at best.
So what are other indicators of a good wine list?
Unless the restaurant caters to a very specific cuisine, it should have a broad selection of varietals and blends from many different countries. If a wine list has only Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir, than it is not a good wine list. If it only has wines from California, France and Italy, it is not a good wine list. Though do hang on to a copy of it as it is a relic of a bygone era. By offering selections from all over the world, a restaurant both introduces its customers to new taste experiences and allows for more nuanced pairings with its cuisine. The fact is most of the food-friendly wines aren’t California Chardonnays, Super Tuscans or Bordeaux: they’re the medium-bodied, less-oaked wines from Mendocino County, Puglia, Portugal, Languedoc and Croatia.
What about price? In general the cheapest bottle of wine should be within a few dollars of the most expensive entree and the bulk of the list should be less than 2x the average entree price. This works out in your basic upscale neighborhood restaurants to a wine list with most of its selections between $28-$55. Be wary of a list that is only at the low end and be extra wary of a low-end list that has a handful of ultra-premium prestige wines, like Veuve Clicquot and Silver Oak. This list has been selected without much thought being given to the specific wines on the list beyond name and price. Don’t worry how much the most expensive wines are, everyone should have options and sometimes those expensive wines are the best bargains on the list (margins tend to diminish as real prices increase).
So if you find yourself at a restaurant with a broad, well-priced list that is full of names that you might not be familiar with, chances are you’ve found yourself a good wine list. What then to order? Here’s the big secret: generally speaking, you can’t go wrong. A well-curated wine program will rarely disappoint. Go with whatever seems the most interesting based on what you want, red or white. Chances are your server will steer you clear from a particularly egregious error and feel free to use your server as a resource. Tell him or her what you intend to order food-wise and the server will do the rest.
Why then should you order a bottle of wine instead of glasses? First, there’s the freshness factor: a bottle of wine behind the bar could’ve been opened for a day or more. Second, a wine from the bottle list will often be more interesting, as the glass selections often have to cater to a broader audience. But even if the wine you want is on the glass list, I’d recommend getting a bottle anyway. Third, a bottle is generally a better value. In LA, bottles are typically priced at 4x the glass price (sometimes only 3x), though a bottle contains 5 (five ounce) glasses.
Lastly, and most importantly, you get to experience that rare and wonderful thing: the evolution of a wine as it gains oxygen and warms up in temperature. A glass of wine is fairly one dimensional: it has probably already been open for some time, so the oxidation process is well on its way and it has probably come out of a cold bar fridge or from on top of a hot bar fridge, not from proper wine storage. A freshly popped bottle of wine might be tight and crisp at the beginning, gradually opening up with more aromatics, a rounder palate and a longer earth and mineral finish as it breathes and warms up to room temperature. You also have the opportunity to taste the wine with different courses, allowing you to explore how a wine interacts with different foods.
My personal recommendation for a dinner for four? Order 2-3 bottles at the beginning and have them on the table the whole night. Go between them and taste the interplay of flavors as you dine. That’s the best way to exercise your palate.
Don’t be afraid that you’re ordering too much wine: you don’t have to finish it. In California you’re allowed to take an unfinished bottle of wine with you after your meal, just ask your server for a cork and a bag and put the bottle safely in the trunk of your car. It’ll still be good tomorrow or, even better, as a post-coital nightcap.