It's no secret that restaurants' wine prices involve high profit margins. On your standard night out you'll likely pay around twice the retail price for a bottle of white or red—or three times the wholesale price that the eatery paid.
If the restaurant's wine list is well-curated, there's no reason to write off the house wine.
Of course, the inflated price doesn't just cover the wine. That big markup helps pay for state alcohol taxes, restaurant rent, staff wages, glassware, and — especially at higher-end establishments — the sheer experience of dining out. No wonder the cost of a particular wine can vary so much between restaurants — up to tens or even hundreds of dollars for top-quality bottles.
Find your favorites on the wine list.
Knowledge is power. Spend some time browsing at a wine store, noting the wine prices of your preferred brands and varietals, and trying what's on offer at tasting nights. When faced with a wine list at a restaurant, you'll have a clearer idea of what you like and how much it's being marked up.
Skip wine by the glass.
When dining with one or more fellow wine drinkers, it's wise to choose a bottle or half-bottle rather than going for wine by the glass. Restaurants tend to price glasses of wine equal to or higher than the wholesale cost of the entire bottle. This ensures they don't lose money if no one else orders a glass of the same wine. A bottle — which gives you around five glasses — is a much more cost-effective option. Most states have laws that allow you to take home an unfinished bottle, so even if you don't drink the whole thing, you still come out ahead.
Another reason not to order wine by the glass: The open bottle it's poured from may have spent days being stored improperly. Stale wine with hints of vinegar is a poor accompaniment to any meal.
Go beyond the usual regions and varietals.
Chardonnay is the USA's most popular wine—a fact restaurants exploit with what's come to be known as the "Chardonnay tax." Many diners don't venture beyond their standard familiar wine types, but less-popular varietals and under-the-radar regions can often provide better deals. Try an Austrian Gelber Muskateller, a German Riesling, or an Argentinian Malbec.
Enlist the sommelier's help.
If you know how much you want to spend but don't know which wines would go well with your meal, ask the sommelier for advice. Don't be shy about mentioning your price range — it helps narrow down the options, which is helpful when the wine list runs for pages and pages.
Don't bet against the house.
If the restaurant's wine list is well-curated, there's no reason to write off the house wine. It may have a reputation for being the generic choice for intimidated diners, but high-end eateries are increasingly recruiting upscale wine producers for their house drinks.
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