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Seeing Value in the Wine List

June 25, 2009

The answer is, “Not always, and sometimes it is actually the worst.”  But being who I am that really was insufficient.

A few weeks ago my sister asked, “Is it true that the second from the cheapest is the best value?”  So instead of giving her the pat answer, I thought more about how to find values on a wine list.  And I realized all my strategies required having a good wine list.  Now, having laid the groundwork, I’m ready for my full answer.

Quantitatively, you will never get a wine value in a restaurant.  That is, unless the restaurant happens to also be a wine store.  But I tend to speak in generalizations, so work with me on this.

Personally, I don’t believe restaurant markups are highway robbery.  I feel better about paying the markups when a restaurant actually pays attention to its wine program.  And that means large-bowled thin-rimmed wine glasses, a well-trained staff that can speak to the wines, and a wine list that is accurate and reflects available vintages, with selections that extend far beyond the largest producers and most common varietals.

How one looks at value can be a matter of perspective.

One can look at the subject simply as a matter of absolute price.  For example, if a cocktail at the restaurant costs $10 and a bottle of wine pours five glasses, one could argue that any bottle of wine under $50 is a good value.

You could choose to look at it as a matter of the scale of the markup.  A handful of establishments charge a flat markup.  This results in some of the more expensive wines being a relative value in comparison.  For example the $20 retail bottle may sell for $40 in the restaurant, while the bottle that retails for $40 might be had for $60 at a restaurant.  And a $100 bottle might only be $120.

But to gauge the value of the scale of markup requires a pretty broad working knowledge of retail wine prices.

The value on a good wine list may not be quantitative at all.  In a good wine program, the beverage director or sommelier has assembled a list of wines that you yourself could not buy anywhere for any price.  Many of the best wineries produce small quantities of wine that never makes it to retail shelves because of the complexities and perils of distribution.  Instead it goes directly to restaurants.

Let me try and reframe my sister’s question.  Assuming you are looking for the biggest bang for your buck among the lower priced wines on the list, how can you pick a good one?

Depending on your temperament, and how great a priority you place on finding the best value on the list, you could bluntly ask the sommelier.  Remember, the sommelier is your friend.  You may say, “I don’t care if it’s white or red, dry or sweet, still or sparkling.  All I want is to find the best made wine under [insert price range here].”  Or something along those lines.  And then once you have settled on a wine, you can choose your meal to complement the bottle, much like Dyson DeMara.

But if you are holding a well-written wine list in your hand, and you want to take a stab at choosing the wine yourself, here are a few tips.

First, take a deep breath and remember, all the wines on a restaurant’s wine list should be very good.  They have been handpicked by someone who presumably understands not just wine, but the overall profile of the restaurant’s food.

Second, avoid like poison any wine you recognize. Restaurants will continue to make a lot of money selling Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio to people because it is a “safe bet.”  Don’t be one of those people.  Not everyone is as brave as you are.

Third, look for passion.  Sometimes a restaurant will take the Santa Margherita money and use it to subsidize wines that are special to them for some reason or another.  While this will not be spelled out explicitly, there could be some notation of the restaurant’s enthusiasm for a wine on the list itself, or it could simply appear as a disproportionate number of wines from one region, like Sicily.

Fourth, consider white.  If you are drinking for value and bang for your buck, the white wines have it.  Simply, they cost less to produce.  And within the whites, those that are not aged in oak barrels are even less expensive to make (the sommelier can tell you which bottles are unoaked).  It may seem counterintuitive to buy a pricier bottle of wine that is less expensive to make.  But for wines at the same price point, say $30 a bottle, the cheaper it is to make the wine, the better the fruit in the bottle.

Fifth, go for the unusual: the unusual grapes, the unusual geography, and even the usual grapes from an unexpected place.  I recently had a white wine from Uruguay, which if I remember correctly was a blend of Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer and Muscat, at a local restaurant known for its wine list.  And it was lovely.

Lesser-known varietals are generally going to be less expensive for a better-quality wine than their more conventional cousins.  For example, $30 retail buys you into the lower tier of top-rated cabernet sauvignons and merlots, but for the same cash you could buy one of the world’s best bottles of Nero d’Avola.

And if you are in a restaurant, you have reviewed the wine list, and you trust that it has been carefully considered, you have been set up to win.  Be experimental.  Try something new.  Save money.  Be happy.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. brownie permalink
    June 25, 2009 1:23 pm

    I guess I have to sit down and properly read all your wine posts to date, but for someone who knows bupkis about booze it’s real hard to make a choice without looking like a total berk to the waiter and fellow diners.

    Is there a flash card or cheat sheet I can use? I suppose if I REALLY cared I’d scour the internets or stick my nose in a “wine for dummies” book, but honestly I’d just like an easy out if wine ordering responsibilities are dumped in my lap.

    • Raf permalink
      June 30, 2009 8:12 pm

      I hear the Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is a safe bet.

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