How (& Why) To Avoid the Second Cheapest Bottle of Wine

February  4, 2016

I once read that New Yorkers are such efficient walkers that they instinctively know the exact angle to walk in order maximize speed and minimize steps.This isn’t surprising—we love a shortcut. Everybody loves a shortcut. But there may be one shortcut we’re using that’s actually working against us: ordering the second least expensive bottle of wine on the menu.

We choose this bottle because the least expensive bottle is probably crap and we don’t want to appear cheap. It makes perfect sense, and it keeps us from spending time studying the list rather than enjoying our glass of wine, the food and of course the company.

In many restaurants, however, the second cheapest bottle on the list often has the highest markup (in fact, the restaurateur probably paid less for that bottle than the cheapest one on the menu).

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This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but since so many people order almost-but-not-cheapest, it makes sense for restaurants to ensure a nice profit margin. As a general rule, you pay a higher margin for less expensive wines and a lower margin on the higher-end bottles.

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Top Comment:
“Good wine nothing to do with price. ”
— la G.

In addition to staying away from the second least expensive bottle, it's also good idea to avoid popular brand names. Wines with better name recognition are ordered more often, translating to higher demand and therefore healthy margins.

So how do we find a good deal? Well, aside from dining at a BYOB restaurant, you should hone in on wine regions that are a little less popular but offer quality and variety.

Turning to these regions will hopefully make ordering from most wine lists easier and more affordable, and also introduce you to some unique, tasty wines that are a bit off the beaten path.


Chile has been producing wines for hundreds of years, but only recently have their bottles started to consistently pop up on restaurant wine lists. The reason is simple: They've established a reputation of producing outstanding wines at a good value.


  • Sauvignon Blanc: crisp with citrus notes (closer to the French style than the New Zealand style)
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: notes of black cherry, pepper, and vanilla
  • Carménère: a grape originally from Bordeaux that has found a well-suited home in Chile; known for its notes of berries and spice

Loire Valley:

I’m always surprised that the Loire Valley isn’t more popular. But at the same time, I'm (not so) secretly quite happy about that since it means I’m going to pay less—at the wine store and when dining out. There are so many grape varieties grown in the valley that you can find something to match just about any meal or flavor profile preference.


  • Muscadet Sevre et Maine: a crisp and refreshing white that's perfect with seafood
  • Chinon: a medium-bodied red wine made from the Cabernet Franc grape
  • Red Sancerre: a Pinot Noir without the Burgundy price tag


When you do something really well, it can define you. When it comes to wine, folks associate Portugal with Port and that’s about it. But they're also producing some other fantastic wines at prices that makes them real steals.


  • Douro Red: especially if you like a big bold red with a healthy dose of tannin
  • Alicante Bouschet: similar to Shiraz, with a smoky, berry flavor
  • Vinho Verde: a crisp, refreshing white with a slightly spritzy texture

Are you a wine list ninja? Share your secrets with us in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • la greca
    la greca
  • Sharon
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    Lisa Renner
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    Steven Hill
  • fiveandspice
Tamara Lover, an accredited sommelier, is Co-Founder of a start-up called Bottle Rush, a company democratizing wine by giving everyone their personal wine expert to help them find wines they’ll love, not like, but love. Tamara’s passion for wine began like most wine love affairs – with one delicious bottle of wine. While dining at a restaurant in New York City, the sommelier recommended a wine that would forever change her life. One sip of the Pinot Noir blew her away. By the end of the glass, Tamara knew how she wanted to spend every moment of her spare time - finding that next great bottle of wine. In 2008, Tamara graduated with her WSET Diploma of Wine and Spirits (DWS) from the International Wine Center (IWC). She was also a weekly wine columnist for the Gothamist for five years and inducted as an honorary member of the Compagnons du Beaujolais, a historic Burgundian wine society. Tamara resides in NJ with her husband and two children. Feel free to ask her any wine related questions – especially about her favorite wine hacks.


la G. March 7, 2018
I used to own a restaurant. At the time, there was a glut of California Pinot Noir and it was being bottled and marketed in many different contexts. We sold a bottle for $38CDN (10 yrs ago) and couldn't keep up with demand. My supplier subsequently told me that the same exact wine (under a different label) was retailing in the States as "Two-Buck Chuck". Good wine nothing to do with price.
Sharon March 28, 2018
la greca, you speak the truth. I've been in the food & bev industry for decades. I know you know what you're talking about. Unfortunately, Two Buck Chuck is no longer only two bucks. Still, it remains the preferred cooking AND drinking wine for my household. Excellent table wines for everyday consumption. No pretension. That's the way the REAL world enjoys wine.
Sharon February 15, 2016
I always ask whatever the house red or white is and order a glass. It's always drinkable and affordable and suits me just fine. But then, I live in California where decent table wines have always been affordable. Wine is just a part of the meal and never something I empty my bank account for.
Lisa R. February 14, 2016
When my friend and I go to a new restaurant we always ask the somm to "Show us a treasure" and give a price range. We have never been disappointed and have found some treasures indeed!
Steven H. February 14, 2016
True they can be very helpful or just trying to move stock that may be just fine but 90% NYC restaurants don't have a Somm 99% outside NYC don't have a Somm...above advice very helpful if your on your own...some Bartenders like myself have some good knowledge of inhouse stock most do not
Steven H. February 14, 2016
Excellent Advice...been a Bartender in NYC 35 years
fiveandspice February 5, 2016
Totally agree! And I, too, am completely at a loss to understand why Loire Valley wines aren't more popular.
Laura H. February 5, 2016
Somms are there to help you! That's what they do, it's their passion. And the best ones will go out of their way to find the perfect wine for your tastes and price range.
Scott L. February 6, 2016
Completely agree, but I do have to say that when there isn't a somm (and in Portland, OR it's rare when there is) lists like this are wonderful.
deblenares February 4, 2016
Vouvray wines from the Loire Valley are also wonderful
Tamara L. February 9, 2016
Great call. Whenever I see one on a list I almost always order it.
dymnyno February 4, 2016
The best advice is to ask questions. Talk to the Som. Ask for a taste before buying. Buy the bottle, not a glass, especially if you can take the rest of it home.
Tamara L. February 4, 2016
I couldn't agree more. Thanks for the comment.