The best way to get a good wine value at a restaurant is to become an educated consumer. You need to know a little about how restaurateurs price wines on the wine list. In a restaurant, expect to pay two to two and a half times the restaurateur's cost for a bottle of wine; in a hotel's restaurant the mark-up is easily three or more times the hotel's cost.
Very often a restaurateur will use a sliding scale pricing strategy by which the less expensive wines carry a higher mark-up and the most expensive bottles take a more modest mark-up. For example, if a restaurateur pays $6 for a bottle of wine, it could land on the wine list at anywhere from $15 to $18. A wine that costs $60 and is widely available, on the other hand, will be priced using the lower end of the scale, or about $120.
It's not unusual for some restaurateurs to be even more gentle with the markup in order to move the wine for the sake of cash flow. After all, restaurateurs like to say, "You can't take percentages to the bank!"
Here are six strategies you can use to get the best wine for your money in a restaurant:
1. Focus for a moment on what you're in the mood for--red or white. This alone cuts the list in half.
2. Skip the house wine. Unfortunately, these wines are most often purchased on the merit of their price, not their quality. Unless you are familiar with the house wine, don't bother because they generally carry the highest mark-up.
3. Scan the list quickly to get a quick fix on the average price of a bottle. If you see that most wines are in the $20s, $30s, $40s, and so on, try to stay within this median price range where the mark-ups are "average".
4. Go with a wine from the same region as the restaurant's food specialty. A good Italian restaurant, for instance, should have a solid selection of Italian wines. Ditto for French and South American.
5. Ask the server for a wine recommendation. If you happen upon an enthusiastic server, take a chance, at least if ordering by the glass.6. Buy by the bottle. If two or more at your table are going to have a few glasses of wine, it is cheaper to order by the bottle.
Felicia M. Sherbert is the award-winning author of The Unofficial Guide to Selecting Wine" (Hungry Minds) and former senior editor at M. Shanken Communications, publisher of Wine Spectator, Food Arts, and Market Watch. When she is not writing, Felicia conducts private and corporate wine seminars.