8 insider tips for ordering wine at restaurants – Orange County Register

8 insider tips for ordering wine at restaurants – Orange County Register


Your friends just handed you the wine list and you’re desperately looking for something everyone will like … That cabernet! Check the price and it’s sticker shock. The bottle you paid $20 for in the grocery store is 60 bucks.

Are restaurants ripping us off? What are we paying for? Sommelier’s salaries? High fees to cellar bottles outside the restaurant? Maintaining fancy glassware?

Bottles always cost more in dining rooms — they’re typically marked up 2 to 3 times wholesale, sometimes more. But restaurateurs say higher wine prices and corkage fees are essential, especially in these times of rising costs for meat, seafood and other items, many of which have grown 30-40% since the pandemic. Wake up and sniff the vino: Food gets sold at very slim margins and restaurants count on alcohol sales to survive.

So, here’s a list of insider info on why wines get marked up and how to get the best deals when ordering.

1. The highest priced bottles have the lowest markups.

If you dig in your heels, determined not to pay more than $25 for a bottle of wine, you might be missing a great deal, says Mark McDonald, chef and co-owner of Old Vine Kitchen + Bar in Costa Mesa with Kate Perry. “Sometimes it can take a year or more to sell 12 bottles of $150 wine,” he said. “Typically if I did a standard markup on that it wouldn’t be approachable and it would be harder to sell. We want people to experience some of these wines that are a little more special, and that are a higher price point. So we take less of a margin on those.”

2. Wine by the glass has the highest markups.

The “I’m going to save money by ordering wine by the glass” plan doesn’t really pencil out. There’s a common formula in the industry with a restaurant charging the wholesale price of the bottle plus $2 for a glass of wine. (That’s because if they serve one glass and the rest of the bottle doesn’t sell in a week, it will not taste peak and they’ll have to dump it down the drain.) The per-glass price of a bottle that’s $10 wholesale would be $12. Even if it’s only marked up double ($20) when it’s sold by the bottle, you buy two glasses of wine, and you’re spending $24. Might as well buy the bottle and get four glasses for $20.

Lawry’s Restaurants solved that problem by narrowing down its by the glass selection. “We did some analysis on it. If you have the right amount of wine by the glass for the restaurant, it really doesn’t cost any more,” said Laura Ratner, director of service and training at Lawry’s Restaurants, Inc. “It’s like, if I’m gonna have a glass and a half, two glasses, as is my dining companion, then definitely get the bottle and yes, you’re more assured of a higher quality product, you know exactly how long it’s been open. It just makes more financial sense.”

3. It’s useless to look for that Costco bargain in a restaurant. As one of the biggest wine retailers in the country, Costco can afford to lose money on some bottles. “Guests say, ‘We have this Caymus, we just got it at Costco. And their price was this.’ They don’t understand what Costco does,” says William Lewis, managing partner and sommelier of The Winery Restaurant & Wine Bar. “They undercut prices on purpose. They do that to get you to come in. And they know you’re gonna buy something else. You’re gonna get food. You’re gonna get this. You’re gonna get that. You’re not gonna just go and get one bottle of wine.”

4. The wine service you get at a restaurant can’t be replicated at home and that’s why you’re paying extra.

A. Most restaurant wines come directly from wineries or a trusted distributor. Bottles don’t sit around at room temperature in a grocery store, or worse, out in the Southern California sun on a loading dock. They’re pristine because they’re stored at the restaurant, often in temperature controlled rooms, which is part of the restaurant’s footprint and therefore part of the rent they pay.

B. The selection is far better than the average person could own or store, sometimes with hundreds of bottles or more. That’s why restaurants have servers or general managers on hand to answer any questions about the wine and to hear from you about what kinds of wines you like best. Top restaurants pay servers to attend wine tastings at work led by experts from distribution companies or wineries.

C. The stemware — usually $3-$9 wholesale — has to be sturdy, yet crystal clear to show off the wine and the restaurant picks up the cost of the breakage. They might only break one a week, but sometimes a whole tray or dishwasher rack hits the floor. When fine dining rooms use fancy, fragile glasses, they could be losing a dozen a week. Even at Polly’s Pies, which used to serve boxed wines, the stemware got an upgrade when the wine list got revamped.

“We changed the glassware to be a more contemporary stemless glass. We pour it behind the bar into a nine ounce carafe. Then at the table, we present it to them,” said Eric Stenta, vice president of operations at Polly’s Inc. who said the restaurant group did not even offer wine for 40 of the 52 years it has done business. “Because our program before was so elementary, we had glasses that were way too small and we were overfilling them. The wine drinkers at Polly’s began to get accustomed to overfilled glasses. So when we went from an eight ounce glass to a 16 ounce glass, to prevent people from thinking that they were being under poured, we put it in the carafe. So, we got the best of both worlds, a better presentation and a better glass.”

5. Don’t think you’re paying a sommelier’s salary.

Starting in the late ’80s, the number of Americans getting sommelier certified exploded. Fine dining restaurants at the highest levels still might have somms, but most restaurants, even upscale chains, can’t afford to pay a somm full-time so that expense is not getting passed on to wine buyers. Most often restaurants require waiters and general managers to study wines served and/or get some sommelier training.

“We can’t afford to pay somebody hourly to come in just to open wine between six and nine o’clock, it doesn’t make sense,” said Lewis. “I’m like an acting GM. I do the wine service and I can say I’m on stage soon. I’ll open wine all day long whenever I get here.”

6. The most popular wines are sold at the lowest prices.

GMs know you’re no fool. They won’t excessively mark up a well-known wine. “Don’t forget, people now have their iPhones when they’re going to a restaurant,” said Tony Maalouf, general manager at the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa in Riverside. “They have an idea what they’re buying and they know what the market price is for that wine,” he said.

7. Corkage fees: the rules of engagement. 

Bringing your own wine has become more common, especially during and post pandemic. But consider that wine is the only thing on the restaurant menu for which you can name your price. Tell the sommelier, server or GM exactly what you’re willing to spend and make them do the heavy lifting, selecting the best bottle in that range. If you do bring your own wine it’s only courteous to tote something that’s not already on the wine list, especially a bottle you’ve been saving for a special occasion. It’s also considered a nice gesture to offer the somm or server a taste.

“I would just say it’s OK to bring your own bottle,” said Stenta, a veteran of the industry who has worked in fine dining rooms for Patina Group, such as Catal at Downtown Disney in Anaheim, as well as at House of Blues and Greenleaf Gourmet ChopShop. “But I think you have to be careful of what that corkage is. I mean, there’s a going rate in some places of $50 to $60 a bottle. But there is a tradition with corkage fees and it’s typically, $20 to $30. And then if you do purchase a bottle of wine off the list, typically the somm will waive the corkage fee.”

8. Rather than whine, show interest in wine to get the best deals.

“If they really like the restaurant, they should have a relationship with myself or one of my other managers or  maître ds because that goes a long way,” said Lewis. “When people actually spend time reaching out, asking me questions, I’ll talk to them on the phone, and when they come in, I’ll put notes on their reservation, saying ‘Waive the corkage fee per William.’ When they’re really nice, I’ll go out of my way to go meet them. … sometimes when they bring a special bottle that’s hard to procure, we get to taste some things that are unique and that’s really fun. So, when they do that, we’re really blessed.”

These Southern California restaurants go the extra mile with wine service

 Mission Inn Hotel & Spa, Riverside

Premium wines are served at the hotel’s restaurants and bars which include Duane’s, Las Campanas Mexican Cuisine, Bella Trattoria Italian Restaurant, Mission Inn Restaurant and the Presidential Lounge. The hotel has a special relationship with Oregon’s Irvine & Roberts Family Vineyard. It also hosts wine festivals and offers wine dinners with premier vintners such as Far Niente and Trefethen. missioninn.com

Old Vine Kitchen + Bar, Costa Mesa

Chef Mark McDonald creates dishes with wines in mind and Kate Perry curates a list with bottles that you won’t find in grocery stores. Every item on the menu has a suggested wine pairing. Look for wine dinners and special events, even culinary tours to Italy. Old Vine partners with the Italian Culinary Institute in Calabria and a trip to Calabria and Sicily is slated for April. oldvinekitchenbar.com.

The Winery Restaurant & Wine Bar, Tustin, Newport Beach and La Jolla

This boutique hospitality group has grown over the years and deepened its wine-country concept with storage for thousands of bottles, as well as lockers for diners who keep wines at the restaurants, which host dinners and special events regularly. Its many honors include the AAA Five Diamond Award. thewinerynewport.com

Polly’s Pies, multiple locations throughout Southern California

Successful restaurants match wine to the menu and to diners’ expectations. Polly’s has seven wines on the list; none cost more than $28 per bottle, glasses of wine are less than $8. An expanded program is gradually rolling out, so look for more premium wines at $12 per glass. Management is beginning to form direct relationships with wineries to get the best prices and selection. pollyspies.com

Lawry’s Restaurants, Lawry’s The Prime Rib, Beverly Hills; Tam O’Shanter, Los Angeles; Five Crowns and Side Door, Corona del Mar

A go-to in Southern California for prime rib, Lawry’s has gone international and all locations offer 100 bottles on the list. Lawry’s hosts events and prides itself on service, often providing special stemware when a table orders an exceptional bottle. Lawry’s fosters direct relationships with popular wineries and runs regular promotions with Caymus Vineyards and Justin Vineyards & Winery. lawrysonline.com


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