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).
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.
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
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!