How To Navigate A Wine List

Kyle Fanthorpe · Apr 8, 2019
Wine poured for a group dinner
It’s a familiar scene: you’re at dinner, perhaps with work colleagues or on a date with someone special. Maybe you’re enjoying a solo outing. In any case, the waiter approaches your table with the wine menu in hand. Dread sets in. You’re presented with a list that might as well be in Greek and, depending on the wines, very well could be. But don’t sweat it. Wine lists are easy to navigate with a little know-how. We’ll walk you through the basics.


Restaurants mark up bottle prices. That’s a simple fact of life, but before you let that deter you, consider this: Those prices are inclusive of more than just what’s in the bottle. It includes your server’s wages, the light by which you’re reading the menu, and even the rent the restaurant pays to keep its doors open. With that in mind, it’s helpful to understand the pricing strategies influencing the numbers on the page.

Wines By The Glass

Can’t settle on a particular bottle? No problem. Almost all restaurants offer a selection of wines by the glass so you can enjoy more than one. Keep in mind that the by-the-glass price will be slightly more expensive than ordering the full bottle. This markup is usually around 20% or so.

Restaurants usually try to cover the cost of the bottle with the first glass sold. So, those by-the-glass prices usually correspond to the wholesale cost of the bottle. This is because, hypothetically, the restaurant might not sell the remainder of the bottle after it’s opened, which results in lost revenue.

The Second Cheapest Wine

Restaurants know many patrons are averse to ordering the least expensive glass on the list and will often opt for the second cheapest choice. The second cheapest wine by the glass is therefore often the most popular. Some eateries take this into account and price accordingly, or may even raise the price of what would have been their cheapest wine to maximize their profit per glass. This applies to bottles, too.

Note: The profit margin on expensive wines is thinner because people are already put off by the higher cost, keeping the markup minimal. That’s not the case with lower price-point wines. The businesses will play around a lot more with the prices on the bottom of their list to make a few extra dollars here and there.

Happy Hours

These promotions are a great way to have a few glasses without breaking the bank. That being said, what’s actually offered offers interesting insights. Some places will offer a blanket discount like 30% off of a bottle, or a few dollars off the glass prices. However, if there are just a few select options provided, this can mean a few things:

  • The restaurant may have chosen their most popular selections to discount
  • They may have picked high-margin wines (which tend to be on the cheaper side)
  • The establishment may be trying to clear out their inventory

It’s good to remember that the wine on the happy hour menu is probably there for a reason.

The Waiter Is Your Friend

There’s always the occasional bad apple, but it’s almost never the case that a server is just trying to upsell you on a more expensive bottle or glass. They are there to answer any questions you may have and to help you find the right wine. Get comfortable talking to them about your preferences such as dry vs. sweet, fruity vs. earthy, and your budget. The wait staff wants you to have the best experience possible, and to come back. Don’t be shy about asking for their recommendations.

Now that you have the essentials nailed down, you can order with confidence the next time you’re out for a night on the town. Don’t overthink it—a glass of wine is supposed to be a relaxing experience, after all.

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