Restaurant Markups: the most expensive $10 bottle you’ll ever buy
Last week I talked about wine night being one of the best times to go enjoy a bottle of wine at a restaurant. I think I’ll be changing that statement to “wine night should be the only time to go enjoy a bottle of wine at a restaurant.” I had a rude awakening this past weekend while in DC, where I went to a wine bar for dinner before a show. With the price of a glass of wine, it makes more sense to get a bottle to split. Looking over the wine list, we saw prices ranging from $35 – 500. We didn’t want to worry too much about the price, but we obviously weren’t going to get something for $100 when we knew that wine was generally marked up to double the price you would find in a retail store.
Double ha. That’s funny. I’m laughing now, because as I learned this weekend, wine is actually marked up 2 ½ to 3 times the retail price. But now I’m laughing even harder because the bottle we got was over 4 times the price I could’ve gotten in a store. Yep, I drank a $10 bottle of Sangiovese from Tuscany, screw-top and all, for $45.
So before you go telling me that I should’ve known better and looked up that bottle on my phone first or gone with a wine I was familiar with, I’ll tell you why I didn’t. First of all, even with the incredible amount of knowledge we can tap into on our smartphones, I don’t think that we need to look up every decision we choose to make. I wasn’t going to pull out my iPhone in the middle of a restaurant. I’d rather take the risk than look rude. Secondly, I enjoy trying new things, so why would I go for a safe choice of already being familiar with the wine?
So despite the original price of the wine, which I looked up the next day using my Delectable app, it was actually really good! I would’ve guessed an original price of $15 – 25. But whether or not it was good is not the issue here. The issue here is that this wine was literally marked up 4 ½ times the price I could get in the store. Something needs to change here.
I know what you’re thinking, you’re paying for the atmosphere! Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. But is the atmosphere really worth $35? No, I would say it isn’t, especially when you know that your food has an “atmosphere tax” too. Instead, what this is is a restaurant owner knowingly and willfully taking advantage of the consumer – a consumer that trusts that whoever is in charge of making the wine list is knowledgeable enough to choose good quality wines and charge fairly for them. It is a lot less daunting for someone who knows nothing about wine to order something at a restaurant rather than go into a wine shop for the first time, because there is an immediate trust that everything available will be pretty good.
I won’t be calling out the restaurant I visited because that would be even more unfair. Although I don’t think that their pricing is morally right, I can’t blame them because it is such a common practice. For me to name every restaurant that upcharges their wines exorbitantly would take me years, and still, nothing would change. Instead, it’s sadly up to us consumers to be more knowledgeable and careful when it comes to ordering a bottle of wine. So here are some tips to help you make the right decision when it comes to ordering wine:
Don’t order the second-cheapest bottle: If you’re looking for a fair deal, don’t make this mistake. The cheapest bottles are generally marked up the most. So why do I say the second-cheapest bottle? That’s because people often steer clear of the least expensive bottle in an attempt to not look cheap. Order something mid-list if you don’t want to break the bank, but order more expensive bottles if you’re looking for the best value.
Look for something unusual: Wines that are less likely to sell will be marked up the least. See a grape you’ve never heard of before, or a blend that sounds somewhat ludicrous? Order that one! You’ll generally be getting the best deal.
Take it for a test drive: If you’re able to purchase a wine by the glass, you are allowed to taste it before you commit to the bottle. Don’t be afraid to ask! This way, you know you’ll enjoy it, even if it’s not necessarily a good deal.
Wine Nights: As I said before, restaurants are constantly having drink specials, and this is the best time to find a fair price for wine. With the average mark up being 2 ½ to 3 times the retail price, when you cut it in half, you can get a decent deal.
BYOB or bust: Many restaurant allow you to bring your own bottle of wine for a corking fee. They can range anywhere from $10 – $250, but the average nationwide is $25. So if you do the math, I would’ve saved $10 if I had brought my own $10 bottle. Call ahead and ask what their corkage policy is.
Fuggedaboutit: Now this is my somewhat paradoxical advice, but the best for your sanity. You know you’re most likely getting ripped off, so just don’t look up that bottle afterwards unless you absolutely loved it. That upcharge is a small price to pay for discovering your new favorite wine!