When presented with a wine list, many neophytes may find selecting the perfect bottle of wine to be a difficult task. For those intent on sticking to a budget, this choice is often even more complex. To help restaurant goers order good wines that won’t break the bank, we asked sommelier, wine buyer, and VinePair contributor Jamie Rubin how patrons can decode wine lists, ask their somms and waiters the right questions, and avoid getting gouged by markups.
Rubin says a common mistake he sees in restaurants is patrons who order the second-cheapest bottle of wine on the menu. “Having been a buyer for more than a decade, I look at lists and I see the second-cheapest bottle of wine on the list, and I’m like, ‘That is absolutely the same price as the least expensive bottle,’” Rubin says.
Many restaurants mark up the second cheapest bottle deliberately, playing off of the instinct of diners on a budget to order this bottle rather than the cheapest one on the list. “People don’t want to be viewed as a cheapskate, and I think that any time you’re presented with the baseline option, you want to show yourself to be at least a little bit higher than that,” Rubin explains. “In the same way that you don’t want to get the basic package car, you don’t want to get the least expensive bottle of wine.”
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Rather than using the potentially unreliable prices on a wine list as their only tool for finding a great bottle, Rubin says customers should use their sommelier or waiter as a resource. “Open up to whoever is providing you service. A lot of people really want to act like they are in the know and can make their own decision,” he says. “But it’s honestly a lot more fun both for the guests and for the service staff to have an actual interaction.”
In some instances, yes, that person may suggest options slightly above the suggested price point due to obligations to the restaurant’s bottle line. But Rubin explains that those who hold fast to their budget will end up with a good recommendation from their somm.
Not sure if you can trust your server to give you honest advice? Rubin says to trust your instincts. “If you genuinely say what it is that you’re looking for and the type of experience that you want and you’re met with either confusion or a terse answer or an upsell, then you know that that’s not a place that maybe you want to come back to,” he says. “But if you’re met with enthusiasm and warmth, that’s your new spot.”
The next time you find yourself feeling thrifty with a long wine list in hand, use the experts as your guide. In most cases, industry professionals want their customers to have the best restaurant experiences possible, and will suggest a great, inexpensive bottle you’ll enjoy.