Negotiating the restaurant wine list

We’ve all done it, gone to a restaurant and treated the wine menu rather like a hot potato, passing it round and round the table – “you want to pick the wine”, “no, please you pick it”, or “I’m easy I’ll go with whatever you think”.

Why do we do this? Is it because we’re never sure what pairs well with the food or is being faced with a wine list with nothing particularly recognizable you fall back on trying to pick on price and don’t want to look cheap or pay too much?

My husband almost never got past our first date after he took me to a lovely little Italian and listening intently whilst I ordered a delicately flavoured white fish dish confidently picked up the wine list and asked for a “Bottle of Malbec please”!  Joking aside, it can be tricky picking something to match the food if you are eating markedly different dishes, in which case, perhaps a ‘by-the-glass’ choice may work best?

A few thoughts:

Restaurant margins on wine are generally very high, this is where they make their money, but interestingly, the better quality wines usually have less margin (as the cost price will generally be far higher to begin with and restaurants may prefer to charge a fixed cash margin on these rather than a percentage mark-up). Some restaurants allow BYO (Bring your Own) for a usually very reasonable corkage, which is always worth considering.

You may find that you don’t have any familiar wine ‘brands’ on the list. Don’t panic – this is effectively because many wines sold to the “On Trade” (ie restaurants) differ from those available to the “Off Trade” (ie bought from Retail outlets). Why is this? It’s probably to do with the margins as restaurants don’t want you knowing how much they are making and if you spot a wine available in the local supermarket for £5 you will be less than positive about paying three times the price for the pleasure of drinking it in the restaurant. Indigestion anyone?

Often it will be the 2nd cheapest bottle on the list that will have the highest mark-up. Why? Because restauranteurs are a canny lot and know you won’t want to appear tight by picking the cheapest bottle, so make their biggest margin on the 2nd cheapest option!

Top tip – Look for grape varieties in regions that are lesser known – these can often offer better value than more familiar wines/regions ie think Albariño, Muscadet or Picpoul de Pinet for example if you are ordering shellfish or seafood.

The old adage that suggests “White for Fish and Red for Meat” isn’t always right. For example a meaty fish such as tuna or a rich salmon dish can work nicely with a lighter style of red wine (Beaujolais or Pinot Noir). Generally it’s the tannin in the reds which can be problematic and why generally a high tannin red works better with rich fatty meats to prevent the tannin from being overly astringent on the palate.

Finally, if you think a wine tastes wrong, don’t be afraid to send it back – the customer is always right remember that.  However, not liking it is not a reason to send it back!  There are lots of faults that can be associated with wine, but remember also that if you happen to have a few tiny pieces of cork in your wine, this is not “corked”.  A “corked” wine will tend to display damp cardboard aromas with very little (or muted) fruit and taste quite bitter.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Peter

    Love your blog! Did not know about the 2nd cheapest wine having the largest markup! Thanks for your suggestions!

  2. sams01

    Glad you’re enjoying it Peter! Any questions or suggestions feel free to drop me a line, I also take requests for subjects people are interested in knowing a bit more about!

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