My Guide To Choosing The Best Wines From A Restaurant List

A guide to choosing the best wines from a restaurant wine list

Restaurant wine lists can be a nightmare if you don’t know what you are looking for and are a little unsure about wines. They are often huge lists with lots of strange names of wines and grapes and the standard wine waiter often knows very little about the wines or can be snooty and make you feel inadequate.

Wine List

So what is the solution to this dilemma?

As I create lists regularly for restaurants and appraise bad ones I think I can give you a few tips on what to choose and what to avoid. Lets start with the generic make up of a standard wine list.

House and entry level wines – these generally are the cheapest options on the list and often start at £14-£16.00 a bottle.

Mid Range wines – the bulk of the list is filled withe these wines and they range from £16-£22.00 a bottle.

High mid range wines – getting more expensive now £22-£30.00 a bottle.

Top End Wines – these wines are often the most recognised wines in a list. Names like Chablis, Chateauneuf du Pape and Bordeaux. Prices are generally from £30-£60.00 a bottle.

This is a generalisation for this blog as many list have far more wines and go up to really high prices.

Lets start with the profit a restaurant wants to make. Bear in mind the poor restaurant owner has to pay for gas, electricity, business rates, water to wash everything, their staff, fixtures and fittings, rent and a huge variety of other costs.

Most restaurants operate on a 65% gross profit basis. This means that if a wine costs them £4.00 to buy exclusive of VAT (20%) then they will generally sell it for £14.00 a bottle. There are costs like VAST differentials to take away but the profit is often fairly decent in terms of bottle cash profit.

However if you buy a glass of the same wine the GP% (Gross Profit) changes. It now is often 68-70% as the owner runs the risk of deterioration of that bottle of wine as it has now been opened. So you will be MUCH better off buying a bottle. Bear in mind the drink driving rules in this case. You can always bring the bottle home with you to enjoy later.

The duty on a bottle of still wine in the UK is £2.05 before VAT and this is a vital figure to remember as it does not matter if you are buying a bottle of house wine or the most expensive wine on a list the duty remains the same. This means the more you pay for a bottle the better the quality of wine will be. For a more detailed explanation of this check out my YouTube Video.

In the case of the really high priced wines such as Chablis and Chateauneuf du Pape the owner generally cannot possibly make the same GP% as the wine would be at a crazy price and not many people would buy a bottle. In this case most restaurant owners opt for a cash margin. This is the buzz word you need to remember.

Example of this – 1er Cru Chablis costs £14.50 ex VAT for the restaurant to buy. In order to sell it at the required GP% of 65% he needs to charge £50.00 which often puts most customer off buying a bottle. The profit is in the region of £30.00 yet the profit in a bottle of house wine is £9.20. So the clever owner will take a hit on his GP% and sell it for £40.00. His accountant will go mad but this way he is still making £22.00 which is double his profit on a bottle of house wine.

This is where you can get some real bargains in wine lists. Whenever I look at a list I go straight to the higher priced wines as you can find some gems in there AND  you could always ask the owner/ sommelier/wine waiter which wines they use on a cash margin basis.

Some wines to avoid as a general rule – If you are lucky enough to live outside of the UK the House Wine is generally a great place to start. However in the UK the house wine is often the cheapest wine they can buy and make reasonable money on. This doesn’t apply to every list but is applied in a huge percentage of outlets.

This often also applies to the next 2-3 wines in the list where they will be bought at a similar price but often are charge at a much higher price so the outlet can make more money from you. These are often wines to be avoided as you will pay £1-£2.00 more per bottle for practically the same wine as the house wine.

But what do you buy if you know what you like? – It depends is the short answer. The longer answer depends on the length of the list. For example if you like Sauvignon Blanc most lists now will have 2-3 examples. A Chilean Sauvignon Blanc is often the entry point, followed by a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and finally a Sancerre or Pouilly Fume. The Chilean offering can be good value but they can also be truly awful and give you a terrible headache the next day.

The Kiwi Sauvignon typically offers the best value. The French wines are often overpriced, over hyped and can be poor. This is a very generalised statement though and I realise lots of lists offer great examples but I have to give my honest opinion of the majority of UK wine lists.

These poor wine lists are made up of 6 huge factors which are prevalent in the UK.

  1. Lazy wine reps –  The wine salesman who know a little and occasionally a lot about wine but knows very little about how to structure a list and even less about the customers who will be buying the wines.
  2. Owners who have no interest in wine and just want the most profit – These owners will happily talk all day about the Dover Sole they have just bought or the top beer they have put on as a guest ale but they have little or no interest in wines and are driven by their accountants.
  3. The lack of knowledge of wine in the general public – The owners, the wine reps, the companies who supply wines and the vineyards all know that the vast majority of the UK still don’t have a clue about wines. They use this to their advantage and this is one of the reasons why a huge percentage of pubs and restaurants STILL have terrible wines on offer.
  4. People buy by grape variety and fashion – In an attempt to simplify wines the public are now buying wines purely by grape variety. They feel safe in the knowledge that they like Pinot Grigio and don’t like Chardonnay. However when they are tested on this the Chardonnay that they swear they dislike is often the wine that they actually like.
  5. The restaurant owners don’t want cash tied up in stock – This can be an awful thing for a restaurant as they have lots of stock that sits there and doesn’t get sold. That’s dead money and it’s deteriorating rapidly in value and quality. If they just had some staff that could understand wine, some customers who would spend a little more then this would all be resolved they believe.
  6. The staff have little or no knowledge of wines – They are often youngsters who don’t drink wine at all. The owner knows they cannot rely on their staff selling the wines so they opt for a safe option with little choice, bad descriptions and poor pricing.

So after taking all of this into account what is the best wine to choose from a wine list?

here are my top 5 tips

  1. Think of a restaurant or bar as a butcher or a small shop where if you get to know the owners they look after you, they recommend the good cuts of meat, they get to know your tastes. A restaurant is just the same as that, so get to know the owners, the staff and ask for their help.
  2. Buy the best wine you can with the budget you have. I find it’s better to not have a starter or dessert and to have a better bottle.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for a small taste of any of the wines offered by the glass. The bar tender will be used to pouring a small measure of the guest beer and will often be happy to let you taste a small amount of the wine, provided you are happy enough to ask for it and don’t think of it as being cheeky.
  4. Start at the top of the list and work backwards in price. Remember the more you pay the better the quality.
  5. Always buy a bottle as you can take it home with you if you don’t finish it. If you drink red and your guest drinks white then consider the half bottle options.

So there you have the first part of this guide. The second part will be finalised shortly and we can go a into a little more detail about which wines offer the best value for money when you are in a restaurant that you don’t know.



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