How to not be scammed by restaurant wine lists.
Don’t be put-off by the rip-off.

There are some things in life one must be stoic about. The weather, naturally. Sports results and Southern Rail and bad political decisions made by Americans, but also, unfortunately, the embarrassingly brazen con that is the price column on most restaurant wine lists.

In the UK, these numbers routinely constitute a 300% mark-up on retail price, often more. For a wine of decent quality or something reasonably interesting (or, in the case of Bordeaux or Burgundy, something even reasonably drinkable) that a customer would be charged 9 or 10 quid for in the wine shop, they’ll be charged perhaps £30 for as a diner in even the most unremarkable of restaurants.

The sad fact is that the majority of wine lists simply aren’t good value for money, and probably never will be. But as any wine lover knows, drinking a good bottle with a good meal is one of the principle joys of eating out, and there a few tricks you can learn to avoid getting utterly, if not totally, ripped off by that sinister, ascending column of little black numbers.

As you would expect, buying by the glass is the surest way to spend maximum money for minimum liquid. In the restaurant’s defence, serving a single glass of wine traditionally requires the opening of an entire bottle of wine, and the greater mark-up on by-the-glass wine is, at least in principle, fair enough. It’s therefore a good idea (if not necessarily an easy one) to gage an idea at the outset of just how much wine you and your companions may be drinking over the course of the evening. Will it be the one glass to match with the food? Are you planning on opening something of your own once you get home, or moving onto a bar afterwards? If so, then maybe buying a single glass is the best option; the mark-up will be larger, but you wouldn’t be drinking a whole bottles’-worth anyway.

If, on the other hand, you and your fellow diners will most likely drink a whole bottle, then deciding between you which one to buy is probably the cheapest idea. This may mean some compromises, especially if some of the party are eating fish or similar white wine-centric meals while others are eating meatier dishes, but buying a single bottle that will meet suitably in the middle is always cheaper than multiple glasses. Some, more upmarket establishments that place particular pride or emphasis on the range and size of their wine lists may however have installed modern wine dispensing machines, allowing for multiples bottles to be opened at once without incurring the risks of oxidisation and spoilage.

For diners with a particular interest in wine and food pairing throughout their meals, or who’d simply like to try a range of different wines by the glass, seeking out a restaurant equipped with this technology may be a good idea – the ability to preserve open wines for considerably longer will generally result in a diminished mark-up. Establishments offering this service will most likely know what they’re doing, and the wine will probably be pretty decent as well.

Quantity is one thing, but quality is another. The usual rules apply of course, just amplified; Burgundy for less than £40 will probably be rubbish – choose a Chilean Pinot instead. American wines also tend to have a higher price than equivalents of equal quality, so unless you really want that particular style of Napa Cab or Russian River Chardonnay, then maybe look elsewhere lower down the wine list. Nowadays it’s relatively easy to gage an idea of whether a restaurant is charging particularly high prices for their wines (above 30% mark-up) by simply taking the time to do a quick internet search of some of the bottles on the list. This will not only provide retail price info (do the maths from there) but will also provide critics scores and tasting notes from many online databases.

The Vivino app even allows you to take a photograph of the wine list itself and cross-check it for feedback and ratings from fellow drinkers in the Vivino community, allowing you to identify the most popular, best value, or perhaps the more off-piste offerings on the list. You shouldn’t be embarrassed about doing this – if a restaurant has faith in the calibre of their cellar, then they shouldn’t fear the results of a quick, tactical browse.

Of course, the only sure-fire way of guaranteeing value for money is to simply drink your own wine – and an increasing number of restaurants are allowing you to do this. Bring-your-own-bottle (BYOB) schemes are popular elsewhere in the world – Australian restaurants tend to offer them more than not – and are increasingly catching on in the UK as well. The establishment will charge a corkage fee, usually between £7 - £10, pull the cork and give you some glassware and then leave you to get on with it. This can save you a whopping amount when you’re drinking something special, like a Cru Burgundy or a good Champagne, and allow you to really match your premium wines effectively with premium food. Although BYOB is gaining in popularity, many restaurants have yet to come around to the idea, so it’s best to ring ahead and enquire in advance rather than risk the awkward expression on the managers face when you pull your Hermitage expectantly from its plastic bag.

Wine is often a difficult subject to navigate at the best of times, but most of all when assessing the wallet-busting figures on a restaurant wine list. Don’t let yourself be scammed by the huge prices – talk to the waiters or the sommelier, consider the cheaper house wine (it’s the wine they stake the rest of the list on, after all), do some smartphone research or bring your own bottle. Restaurants have to make money, certainly, but they shouldn’t rip you off, so arm yourself accordingly and fight for the right wine.

Christian Lowe