How to Save Money on Restaurant Wine
By Irene Moore
As wine prices continue to escalate in Miami restaurants, how can you save money? You can sometimes check the restaurant wine list online, then go on the Internet and research the retail prices, but who wants to do that when you’re going out to relax and enjoy? Here are 6 insider tips from the pros to help navigate your way around a wine list and find the best buys:
1.) Size up the wine list first. If it’s focused heavily on Bordeaux from France or Barolos from Italy, the creator of the wine list prefers Old World wines. France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Greece have been producers of wines for thousands of years, and are called “Old World” wine-producing countries. Old World wines are usually more acidic and less fruity. Many consider them better “food wines” because of their higher acidity. They’re usually the more expensive wines on the list. If the wines are primarily produced in the United States, Australia, South Africa, Chile, Argentina and New Zealand, the wine list’s creator is a New World wine person, preferring wines in a bigger, bolder style—more fruity with a higher alcohol content. Also, most New World wines are often less expensive than Old World offerings.
2.) Check with the sommelier and let him/her know your price limit. No sommelier? Ask a savvy waiter to suggest a good wine based on what you want to pay. But know that a sommelier’s role in fine dining today is much more specialized and informed than that of a wine waiter. Assume that the sommelier will most likely guide you to a higher-priced wine. Follow his/her suggestions on the type of wine based on what you’re ordering, but be firm about staying within your price range. Additionally, you are expected to tip the sommelier for their assistance. In her review of a new book, Cork Dork, by Bianca Bosker, New York Times’ Jennifer Senior says: “This much is clear: sommeliers are secret weapons, capable of adding zeros to the bottom line. They’ve mastered the fine art of the upsell, sometimes based on the semiotics of customer clothing and accessories alone. Is Dad wearing a $50,000 Patek Philippe watch? Do not give him a bottle of Pinot Grigio if the most expensive one on your list is only $80. Steer him toward a $270 bottle of Chablis Grand Cru instead.”
3.) Don’t follow the general rule, “The highest priced bottles are marked up the least, and the least expensive bottles are marked up the most.” This is not always true. And don’t go by the common rule of choosing the second-least expensive choice on the menu, either. Pedro Clemente, head bartender at River Yacht Club says, “We generally know that your eyes go immediately to the cheapest wine on the list. And we also notice that many of our guests then move their glance down an inch, to select the second or third-lowest bottle so as not to seem, well…cheap. Wine directors, restaurants, and sommeliers are on to your craftiness, and they’ve parried your move long before you’ve arrived.” He points out, “Knowing that it will sell swiftly, they may have slotted an overstocked bottle into that position on the list and yes, they may have marked up this wine more than any other, making it potentially the worst value on the list.”
4.) Skip the status labels and shop for a cheaper “brand.” A Bordeaux is usually one of the most overpriced wines on a wine list because the perception is that its value is greater. Just like an expensive Birkin bag, you may be paying for the snob appeal of that pricey Petrus, a legendary right-bank Bordeaux, or the famed cachet of a Château Lafite Rothschild, when a perfectly good Coach bag—or more obscure wine label—will do just fine.
Not all somms are on the upsell—many want to keep you as a regular restaurant patron and appreciate your willingness to try something new. At Faena Hotel Miami Beach—which has an extensive wine list—Tim Knapp, Sommelier, and Zach Gossard, Beverage Director, are wine experts who believe in offering affordable options to their patrons. They suggest if you forego the expensive vintage Bordeaux, you may discover a great value. It’s “often as easy as picking a lesser known vintage, name or region,” they say. “The general rule is that a great vintage will age longer, so a less acclaimed vintage tends to drink better younger than some of the highest-rated vintages.”
“Rather than indulging in the 2003 Château Lafite Rothschild, which will peak in another decade, opt for the 1995 Château Gruaud Larose, which is lesser known and hails from a fantastic vintage. It is often easier to find an older wine at phenomenal value, as wine prices have skyrocketed in recent years,” they note.
5.) Another approach is to look for a wine from a lesser-known producer from a more obscure region or country . Pick something similar to what you like to drink, but offering more value. On a French-centric wine list find value by choosing a different grape from the same region; for example, a Bourgogne Aligoté, instead of Burgundy’s more esteemed Chardonnay-based white wines. While the primary grape is Aligoté, regional regulations allow up to 15% Chardonnay to be blended into Aligoté wines. They tend to be light and acidic in style, and are usually unoaked, making them great food-pairing wines.
“Sometimes, you’re actually paying for the brand name,” says Knapp and Gossard. Eyeing that world-famous, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa? The wine that won the famed Judgment of Paris in 1976, when it beat out French Bordeaux in a blind tasting? Honor its notable history, yes, but if you’re looking for something more affordable, “Rather than ordering that cult wine from Napa, try a Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, like Anakota. It’s from a part of Sonoma very close to Napa, affording it similar characteristics without the price tag.”
What if your heart is set on Champagne? Go ahead, go for it. But Knapp and Gossard concur, “ If $5,000 for the Krug Clos d’Ambonnay Blanc de Noirs 1998 is a bit beyond your budget, look to the Egly-Ouriet Grand Cru Blanc de Noir for just over $200. It’s all Grand Cru fruit, and really sings in the glass.”
6.) If you’re still feeling insecure, try a pocket somm, where you can have the expertise of the best sommeliers right in your pocket (or Birkin handbag). Levi Dalton’s podcast offers interviews with vintners, critics and more at illdrinktothatpod.com. Master Sommelier Dustin Wilson and Derrick Mize co-created Verve, a site that sorts wine selections by region and grape, also by type of meal (brunch, anyone?) or dish, at vervewine.com. Wilson and Mize were formerly with Eleven Madison Park in New York—praised by Eater New York as having “the city’s finest wine list.” Let’s see, what goes with Eggs Benedict?