April 7, 2010

The Grape Escape: Wine list strategy — finding the ‘sweet spot’

Today, assuming you accept the argument that wine-list markups are necessary for an eatery to make its numbers work, and you’re prepared to play the game to enjoy a little vino with your restaurant meal at the going rate, let’s talk about consumer strategy.

Pick up a wine list at a typical bistro, and chances are you’ll find wines that range in price from about $20 to maybe $100 or more. Do we mine the high end of the list, bottom-feed or look somewhere in the middle to choose our libation?

Here’s my advice:

•Avoid the cheapest wine on the list. Chances are it’s a mass-market, industrial label. Yellowtail, anyone? Not to snob on the popular brands, but I get more enjoyment from something more artisanal. Moreover, restaurants frequently — not always — mark up the cheapest wines a bit more.

•Unless you’ve got big NCAA pool winnings burning a hole in your pocket, skip the high-end stuff. As a certified wine geek, I might buy a $100 wine for a special occasion at home. But my tolerance quickly evaporates when I see a 200 percent markup at this price level.

•Somewhere on the list, the graph lines representing quality and value will cross. For most local spots, I’ll find these goodies in the $25 to $40 department. I suggest looking in this range for wines you’ll like.

Want a final reality check? Figure what you’ll be paying for your entrees, and use that sum as the maximum you’ll put down for a wine to match.