How to judge a restaurant’s wine list

How wine-consumer-friendly is that restaurant you’ll be dining at tonight?

BYO establishments are the pinnacle of oenophile-friendliness, but most of the time we choose a restaurant based on its food and make the best of the wine list it offers.

35 - wine list

Here are a few guidelines that can help you judge whether a restaurant genuinely loves wine and wants to encourage its guests to sample its selections.

1 – Is the current wine list posted online for advance perusal? While most restaurant websites now post their food menus, not so many include their wine lists. It’s a plus, though, to help you set your spending expectations, gauge markups and search out interesting bottles. Of course, if you order a wine you identified from your online research and the server tells you it’s no longer available, you’re up against my next criterion . . . .

2 – Is the list accurate and up to date? How many times have you ordered a bottle only to be informed that the wine is sold out? Or, even worse, your server presents a bottle of a different (typically younger) vintage than what is listed (although this scenario can occasionally work in your favor, if the replacement bottle would normally command a higher price). These situations depict a restaurant that’s not paying enough attention to its wine list.

3 – What does the list offer for under $100? Affordability is one aspect of consumer-friendliness, and countless restaurants make the grade by this measure. At some of my favorite go-to places, all the wines are below—and often well below—$100. Yet eye-popping (price-wise) wine lists, usually at restaurants with food prices to match, can still be appealing, as long as they include a variety of less-expensive options across categories. And three-digit bottle prices, particularly for older wines that have been in storage, may actually be reasonable, if they are comparable to or barely above retail. Which leads to the issue of markups . . . .

4 – How large are the markups over retail? Aggressive restaurant markups infuriate wine producers, especially smaller ones, who see markups as a way to discourage consumers from trying their product. Restaurants as a rule mark up their bottle prices by at least 2 and sometimes up to 3 times the average retail price, although markup percentages vary tremendously, not only across the restaurant industry but even within a wine list, with lower-end wines often priced at higher markups than more expensive bottles. Savvy diners who feel they’re being suckered if they choose a bottle that’s excessively marked up can do quick research at the table, via smartphone or tablet, or in advance for those lists that are posted online, to find the going retail rates for wines they are considering. And there are restaurants known for their low-markup policies. Landmarc in Manhattan, for one, and some identified by the WSJ’s Lettie Teague.

Diversity of offerings; unusual bottles that are difficult to find—these attributes can also distinguish great from mediocre wine lists. Any lists that stand out in your experience? I’d love to hear about them.

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