Post # 67 – Understanding Restaurant Wine Lists, How to Navigate Your Way Through Them.

Understanding restaurant wine lists and being able to navigate your way through them fast and efficiently is vital to getting full value for your dining experience. Many people are terrified at the thought of having to select the dinner wine from a restaurant’s wine list, and with good reason. You usually get seated, your waiter brings you the dinner menu and the wine list. Your water glass gets filled, then your waiter introduces himself and asks you what you would like to drink. If you intend to drink wine, you have had no time to look at the wine list, and no time to discuss what your other dinner partners want – white or red or bubbles. Right away you are under pressure to perform miracles and find the perfect wine in 15 awkward seconds or less. So what do you do? Well most people stall for time, and tell their waiter to give them a few minutes to look through the wine list.

Now you take your first glance at the wine list, which will have anywhere from 20 to 500 different selections to choose from, and you must quickly navigate your way through the selection or look like an idiot when your waiter returns to your table 2 minutes later to take your wine order. There is nothing relaxing or confidence building about this exercise, so I am going to give you some tips and advice on how to approach this daunting task. Master this art of selecting the right wine and you will be well on your way to becoming known as a wine connoisseur.

So here are some tips on how to decipher restaurant wine lists:

  • Most restaurants that serve wine have a website and that website usually has the menu and their wine list on it. Do your homework before you arrive at the restaurant. Browse their wine list on line and learn what you can about the wines they offer. Arrive at the restaurant with a pretty good idea of which wines you would order, have your top three choices identified.
  • Standard restaurant markup on wines is between double and triple the cost of the wine. So if you know that a particular wine costs $30 at the local liquor store, expect to see it on the menu priced between $60 and $90. When you browse the restaurant’s wine list look for wines you know and have bought recently yourself, compare the retail price you have recently paid to their price on the wine list and that will tell you the average markup this restaurant is applying on the wine.
  • Markup policy will vary by restaurant. Some will have a uniform markup across all price ranges, so you might see all wines marked up by say 2.6 times purchase price. Other restaurants will price their cheaper wines at 3 times purchase price, mid-range wines lower priced at say 2.7 times purchase price, and expensive bottles marked up a little lower at say 2.4 times purchase price.
  • In general, the cheapest wines on the list are usually marked up the highest, because the restaurant sells more of these than the others.
  • If you see a wine marked up by less than 2 times purchase price, this is a good deal. If you see a wine marked up by more than 3 times purchase price, this is a bad deal and you should find another wine, or another restaurant.
  • Be very careful with the year or vintage of the wine you are ordering. A very common problem is ordering what the wine list describes as a 2015 vintage, and the waiter brings you a 2017 or a 2018 with apologies that the 2015 is now out of stock. This happens all the time. When this happens, the customer often just accepts the replacement bottle, and the restaurant is counting on that. This is not such a big deal when you are ordering a cheaper wine, because there is not much difference in quality from year to year. However, if you are ordering an expensive bottle of Burgundy, Bordeaux, or Cotes du Rhone the year is very important, and the prices reflect that. So if you are ordering an expensive 2015 and they bring you a 2017, send it back because you are a lesser wine for what should have been a top vintage. To avoid that embarrassment, tell your waiter you want the 2015, and if they do not have that vintage in stock then you want something else. That is why I recommended in point # 1 above that you have your top three choices selected, so you can give your waiter an alternate second choice right away. The more expensive the wine, the more important the vintage becomes for both price and quality. Look at it this way: that 2016 Bordeaux 5th growth red on the list for $250 has about a 2.5 times markup and should taste great, and is reasonably priced. If the waiter brings a 2017 as a substitute for the 2016 at the same price, the markup you are paying is about 3.5 times and the wine will not be nearly as good. I would be most unhappy if that happened to me!
  • Beware of fancy restaurants that carry multiple vintages of expensive wines. You will want to be very careful with their markup policy on older vintages. Most of these restaurants will simply apply a 2.5 times markup on the most recent vintage, say a 2012, pricing the bottle at say $200. Then they list their older vintages proportionately higher. So the 2010 would be listed at $250, the 2009 at $280, the 2008 at $300, and the 2005 at $350. At first you might think that this makes sense, but remember that those older wines were purchased at lower prices, so the markup you pay on that older wine today is actually much higher compared to the original purchase price. On that 2005, the markup you are paying is probably closer to 5 times the original purchase price. Don’t get me wrong, the restaurant should be entitled to a higher markup on older vintages, but within reason. If you see a restaurant wine list that carries older vintages without prices, watch out. You are being placed at a huge disadvantage and you are at their mercy, you have no way of evaluating whether the wines are priced fairly or not.

I wanted to test these basic points, so I randomly selected 4 different local restaurants to evaluate their wine lists, prices, and strengths verses weaknesses. I also wanted to use their wine lists for instructional purposes in this blog. I will not name the restaurants since the intent in this blog is only to give you a few pointers in how to navigate your way through their wines.

Restaurant # 1:

A popular chain restaurant known for their ribs, steaks and seafood dishes, with about 30 locations in Quebec and Ontario. Mid-priced menu. The wine list has 53 different selections, organized into 6 bubbles and rosé wines, 10 whites, and 37 reds. The whites and reds are organized by grape types such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Blends for the whites, and Pinot Noir/Gamay, Merlot and Blends, Cabernet Sauvignon and Blends, Shiraz and Tempranillo, Sangiovese and Blends, etc. There are not enough wines on the list to justify separating them by region or country, so all the Chardonnays, for instance, are listed together by increasing price.

The most expensive wine on the list is $174.00, and only 3 selections are priced over $100.00. Over 75% of the 53 wines are priced at $50.00 or less. The wines are also organized from first to last by increasing price, which makes it easy to focus on the price range of your choice, which for most people will be near the top of the list in every category. The wines are well selected, with many popular names easily recognized, average markup is 260%. However there are still some bargains to be had, like the Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at $75.00, a markup of only 200%. 30% of the wines on the list are available in 6 ounce and 9 ounce glasses at a slightly higher markup to the full bottle price, which is good.

My only criticism of this wine list is that there are no vintages indicated on any of their wines, so you will have to ask the waiter and be prepared to resort to a second or third choice if the vintage available is too young. Otherwise, this is a nice, compact, functional wine list and easy to navigate, with the occasional bargain to be found.

Restaurant # 2:

A popular steak and seafood restaurant chain with 95 locations across Canada and 10 locations in 4 States in the US. The Quebec wine list has 95 different wines, consisting of 7 bubbles, 2 rosé, 21 white, and 65 red. The wines are grouped by grape type and increasing price, once again not grouped by region because there are not enough wines to warrant that type of grouping. 39 of these 95 different wines are offered by the glass (both 6 and 9 ounce) for a slight premium to the bottle price.

When you price the wines to calculate the markup they average out at roughly 250% markup, which is not bad. But there is more good news here because there are some bargains, such as Coppola Director’s Cut Cabernet Sauvignon at a 215% markup, and The Prisoner Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah from Napa Valley at only a 170% markup. These are both well priced. Let me repeat one more time, if you can find a wine on a restaurant wine list at a markup of 200% or less, then you should be looking at it closely. Make sure it does not come from a bad year, and make sure the bottle is in good condition on arrival at your table (no stained label, no damaged cork, etc.), and if the price is right for the occasion, then go for it.

Once again, there are no vintages indicated on the wine list, meaning that, as in restaurant # 1 above, you must be prepared with more than one choice in case you do not like the vintage available for your first choice. Let me give you an example, on this wine list the only red Bordeaux wine is Chateau Larose-Trintaudon. If the waiter brings you the 2015 vintage then you are in luck, because that is very forward and fruity for a young vintage, and not overpriced at a 225% markup. However, if this turns out to be a 2013 or a 2011 then you should switch to your second choice as it will be much more austere and difficult to drink, and coming to you at a much higher markup.

Always look for a balanced wine list as it should have something for everyone. In this particular case, restaurant # 2 lists a total of 17 red cabernet sauvignon blends (which is almost 20% of the entire list), but 11 of them are from California while the remaining 6 are from 6 different countries. The list is clearly over weighted in favor of California Cabs.

Restaurant # 3:

This popular upscale steakhouse and seafood restaurant has two locations in the Montreal area and has been a fixture of fine dining in Quebec for many years. Prices are not cheap but you regularly get a fine dining experience. This restaurant boasts a wine list with almost 300 different wines on it. There are 70 white wines including 11 sparkling wines and 10 dessert wines, and about 230 red wines, including 6 ports. 37 of these wines can be ordered by the glass, and 87 of these wines are private imports. 64 of these wines are priced over $100. By the way, here when you order wine by the glass you get 6 ½ ounces (1/4 bottle) for 25% of the full bottle price, there is no markup for ordering by the glass. Right away you know that this restaurant takes wine seriously when 30% of a wine list this large consists of private imports, they clearly know their wines, and have a lot of confidence in their private imports.

The wine list is very well organized, listing bubbles, whites, dessert wines, reds, and ports separately. Each category is listed by country and region such as Bordeaux, Cotes du Rhone, California, Australia, etc. All wines are numbered, all wines are priced, and the year of each wine is also listed. There is full transparency here on this wine list. This makes it so much easier for customers to shop this list both before going to the restaurant as well as once you are there. Markups also appear to be reasonable, ranging on average from 225% to 275%, with enough variance to make it worth your while shopping for bargains. Not all wines are premium wines, but as should be expected, some of the cheaper wines are subject to a higher markup, such as Apothic Red 2016 at $40.00 that bears a 285% markup. There is however plenty of value to be found in mid-priced wines, such as the Coudoulet de Beaucastel 2015 at $70.00 and a 240% markup, the second wine of Chateau de Beaucastel from the Cotes du Rhone in a great year. Several other restaurants in the same local area (with the same purchase price) list this same wine on the wine lists at $80.00 per bottle, so you know right away this restaurant has a reasonable pricing policy.

When a restaurant has this large a wine list there are often some bargains to be found in the higher priced wines, and this restaurant provides several good examples of that point. Their list has several well priced top Bordeaux reds from the 2005 vintage, obviously bought many years ago at substantially lower prices. Because those wines are expensive enough that they are beyond the means of most patrons, the restaurant often does not continue to mark them up to current market value, otherwise they would not sell. Those wines were probably bought about ten years ago, and that is a long time for a restaurant to stay tied up in wine inventory.

The 2005 Chateau Rausan-Segla is listed on the wine list at $530.00, and was probably bought from the local Quebec liquor board (SAQ) 10 years ago at $315.00, so the markup then was less than 170%. The wine is rated by critics at 94 points. The 2005 Chateau Palmer costs $675.00 per bottle, and is rated by critics at 96 points. You can buy that same wine at retail in Ontario now for $930.00, so arguably the restaurant could charge up to $2,000 for this wine and it would still be reasonably priced (but at that price it would not sell). Same thing with the 2005 Chateau Leoville Las Cases, $700.00 on the wine list, critics rate the wine 96 points, would cost retail in North America roughly $500.00, so the markup to market value is only 40%, markup to purchase price was likely about 225%.

However, the best bargain on their list is the 2005 Chateau Haut Brion at $875.00. Rated 97 points by critics, this wine retails today at $2,100.00. Bought ten years ago, the restaurant would not have paid less than $600.00 for this wine, so the markup to purchase price was already low at no more than 50%. At $875.00 this wine is offered at less than 50% of current market value, an outstanding value but one that most people cannot afford. This does however illustrate my point, bargains can often be found, especially at the upper end.

Restaurant # 4:

This restaurant is highly regarded as one of the top Montreal steakhouses. Specialty cuts, aged beef, nothing but the best, with a wine cellar to go with it. Everything about this restaurant is expensive, but the service is great, so that you feel good about having your wallet emptied, or your credit card maxed out.

There are roughly 400 wines on this restaurant’s wine list. This breaks down into 50 different types of champagne or sparkling wine, including rosé, 50 different white wines, 25 dessert wines and port, and 275 red wines (20 of which are larger sized bottles). The list is organized by regions rather than grape types, and is dominated by California (100), French (70), and Italian (55) red wine. The impression one gets from reviewing the wine list is that you will be paying a lot for your meal, it will usually be red meat, so you are going to want a big expensive red wine to go with that side of beef. So as one might expect, most of the 275 red wines on this list are very expensive wines.

However, there are several red flags that point to a very unbalanced wine list. For example, the wine list on their website shows no prices. This is never a good sign, like flashing a “buyer beware” signal indicating that you are about to get fleeced. This means you cannot prepare in advance to select your top three choices, you have no way of verifying the restaurant’s markup policy, and therefore no way of shopping through the list to find the best bargains. This is too bad, because there are some nice older vintage Bordeaux wines on the list, but no way to price them properly.

There is also huge imbalance in their selections. For example, in Bordeaux classified growths they have about 20 Pauillac selections (consisting of multiple vintages of Mouton Rothschild, Latour, and Lafite Rothchild, and only a couple of others). In Margaux they have several vintages of Chateau Margaux, and Pavillon Rouge (the second wine of Chateau Margaux), and one other, all hugely expensive wines. There are no selections from St. Estephe, nothing from St. Emilion, virtually nothing from Pessac-Leognan, nothing from Graves, and only a few selections from Pomerol (all either Chateau Petrus or Chateau Le Pin, guaranteed to break your bank). You are not likely to find a good red Bordeaux 3rd, 4th or 5th growth for under $500 per bottle as there are only a few of these on the list and most are from older vintages and will therefore be too expensive for anyone on any kind of a budget.

It really is a shame that there is not more transparency, the list is not updated, there is no price information, and there are huge gaps in coverage. One might rightfully ask why they bother posting their wine list on line at all, the wine list in it’s present condition is not a positive advertisement.

Always make a point when dining at an expensive restaurant that boasts a 5 star wine cellar to ask if you can have a quick tour of the wine cellar. Many of them allow that, and when ordering an expensive and older bottle from their wine list you want to be sure before doing so that the wine has been properly stored, so take the tour to make sure the temperature is right, that the bright lights are not too bright, etc. I once toured a restaurant wine cellar where the cellar room temperature was correct, but all the wine was in large glass enclosed racks under bright lights, and the temperature inside the glass enclosed racks was a good 15 degrees warmer, especially near the top where the heat from the lights was greatest. All for show, not so good for preserving the wine properly.

Another point to remember, the sommelier is there to help you with your wine choice, that is his/her job. When you find yourself in a more expensive restaurant and confronted with a larger wine list, you are also likely to run into “private imports”, these being wines that are not for sale in your local liquor store. In most of these cases you will have no information of your own on these wines, so you will need to ask. Over 30% of Restaurant # 3’s wine list are “private imports”, so at that restaurant you will need to be asking your sommelier what they would recommend and why. You just might discover a pleasant surprise.

I hope this blog has helped you feel more at ease with the task of browsing the wine list to find the right wine for your meal. One last point, there is no intent in this blog to either praise or condemn a restaurant for the quality of their wine list or for its presentation. I am merely trying to help educate restaurant patrons in how to quickly and effectively browse a wine list, and to hopefully find a gem or two that will enhance the memory of their dining experience.