Recently, I had the opportunity to dine at a restaurant in New York City with some friends. In advance of the meal, we talked about getting a bottle of wine, so I checked out the restaurants website to see what they were offering by the bottle. Looking a restaurant wine list in advance serves several purposes.
First, restaurant wine lists can be very intimidating. With so many choices and relatively high prices, picking a wine after just a glance at the menu can be difficult. Unless you have a rote knowledge of dozens of wine types (and let’s face, who really does!), you are likely to gravitate either toward the lowest price wines or to grape varieties or producers you have heard of before. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with this approach, you are most likely not choosing the best value or best tasting wine on the menu in your price point.
Second, restaurants make significant profit on their wine lists. Where a wine might retail for $10, a restaurant might charge between $30 and $40 for the same bottle. This does not mean that ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant is a bad idea. On the contrary, it just means that you need to go in with a mindset that you are paying a little more for the experience of drinking the bottle in a restaurant environment and paring it with their food.
The challenge for any diner is to identify the value wines on the menu. This means identifying the wines that provide an excellent experience without as big a markup. To identify these wines, looking at wine lists in advance comes in handy. With the internet, you can check virtually any wine to see how others like it and what it costs at retail.
Back to my meal in New York. Ahead of time, I looked at the wine list to identify a good value white and red. The cheapest red was a 2008 Astica Malbec from Argentina. It sold online for about $4 or $5 a bottle, the restaurant was selling it for $32 (a 640% markup). This by definition was not a value purchase. Contrast that with the 2007 Domaine Grès St. Vincent Côtes-Du-Rhône from France, which retails for $17 and was being offered for $36 (a 211% markup). While Malbec and Côtes-Du-Rhône are very different red wines, the Côtes-Du-Rhône is absolutely the better value.
I admit that looking at the wine list ahead of time takes some of the romance out of ordering a bottle of wine. For me, however, I want to feel comfortable in my price range and not feel pressured to choose something that I will not enjoy or is more than I want to spend.