Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Drinking wine at restaurants can be a tricky (and often expensive) experience. Alcohol can contribute heavily to a restaurant's bottom-line, so it's important to remember a few tips before you hand over your wallet.
Swim Against the Current
If you go to a restaurant and order Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay, 9 times out of 10, you will overpay. These are the wines that consumers know and feel comfortable with. A sommelier doesn't have to "sell" these wines to anyone. They sell themselves. Restaurants put these wines on their list as money-makers. If the person in charge of the wine program creates a wine list without any of these wines, they may not have a job for long. On the other hand, if you see something like Gruner Veltliner, Mourvedre, or Vacqueyras on a wine list, you might just get a deal! Consumers are typically afraid to order what they are unfamiliar with or can't pronounce. These wines are on the list because whoever picked the list thought they were worthy, and/or provided great value to the consumer. Don't be afraid to try something different!
Many times, I will show up at a restaurant with my own bottle of wine. You'll typically pay a fee ($10-$20) for the restaurant to provide stemware, open the bottle, and to recoup some of the lost revenue of you not ordering off of its list. Some restaurants offer FREE CORKAGE(!), although this is starting to become more rare. Generally, the fancier the restaurant, the higher the corkage, but there are a few hidden gems that keep the corkage fee free or reasonable. If you are bringing multiple bottles, check what the corkage fee is for the second and subsequent bottles, or if there is a limit.
In the past few years, the hybrid wine retail shop/restaurant has become a thing. You can order wine at dinner that comes from the restaurant's retail store and pay a nominal corkage fee. One of my favorites is Cucina Enoteca (Newport Beach, Irvine, San Diego) which charges $9 for every bottle opened. This is a fantastic deal. The average markup for a bottle of wine can run between 2 to 4 times the retail cost of the bottle. For example, a bottle of wine that is $30 retail could run you $90 at a normal restaurant, but that same bottle would only cost you $39 at a restaurant that is also a wine retail store.
By the Glass? Pass.
Buying wine by the glass is a dangerous proposition for multiple reasons. First, how long has that bottle of wine been open? At restaurants with more by-the-glass selections, the various bottles can sit open for multiple days, ensuring you a nice oxidized experience. BLEH. In addition, at most restaurants, the highest markup is on wine by the glass. It is not uncommon for a glass of wine in the restaurant to be priced as much as that same bottle in the retail store. If you are buying by the bottle, typically the markup percentage decreases as the wine's price increases. The markup on a $10 retail bottle might be 4x, while the markup on a $40 retail bottle might only be 2.5x. The choice becomes between a crappy bottle for $40 a nice bottle for $100. A difficult choice, indeed. Instead, you might be able to get a small pour of a bottle of wine you are interested in purchasing, just to see if you like it. If it is something old or rare, though, you just have to roll the dice.
Trust the Sommelier. Don't Trust the Waiter.
I always suggest leaning on the sommelier when ordering wine at a nice restaurant. Providing guidance is what they're paid to do. Contrary to popular belief, they usually won't steer you into something way out of your price range. They want you to be happy, and finding the right wine at the right price point will do just that. I would caution that everyone who works in at restaurant is not a sommelier. At a lower-end restaurant, the waiter may double as the "wine-person." They may know a few wines on the list and tell you what they like, but without the proper training, they could lead you astray. They could be chugging Natty Light after they get off of work. Would you trust them with your wine selection?
When it's all said and done, if you don't like what's on the list, just drink a nice craft beer or mixed drink. I would argue that you'll get more enjoyment out of drinking a quality beverage than a poor one, no matter what category of alcohol it is from. Salud!