Ask The Salty Waitress: Is Wine By The Glass A Rip-Off?

Hey Salty, I have this know-it-all brother-in-law who just has to be the smartest, most contrarian guy in the room. I was recently eating dinner with him and my lovely sister at a nice restaurant when he started lecturing me about how I shouldn't have ordered a glass of wine because wine by the glass is always a rip-off. He talked for probably 10 minutes about how restaurants always mark up glasses of wine and if I was smart I would ordered the bottle or gotten a cocktail instead.

Okay, so he's obviously a jerk, but is he right? I hadn't ever thought about this. I just wanted a glass of wine, though maybe if I drank the whole bottle he'd be more tolerable.

Thanks,Please Settle This For Me

Dear Settle,

I wish I could give you a slam-dunk-in-your-face-LOSER kind of response to your ratbag brother-in-law, but it's not that simple. He's not entirely wrong, but he's not exactly right either. Like most things in life, the answer to whether wine by the glass is a rip-off is pretty much: Well, that depends.

First we need to know how restaurants price wine. Let's cut to the chase: It's all overpriced. The $35 bottle of wine on the list most likely cost that restaurant $7-$9, give or take. The restaurant is looking to make roughly a 70% profit margin on wine, so whether you order by the bottle or the glass, you're paying more than you'd pay for that same bottle, even with a retail markup at a liquor store. But the same is true of the food—chicken costs less at the Costco than it does at the nice restaurant. That's how restaurants work.

Now let's take that $35 bottle of wine and break it down by glass pours. The restaurant gets probably four—maybe five if they're stingy—by-the-glass orders out of the bottle, depending on how many ounces they pour into each glass. That would price each glass at $7-$8.75. The restaurant, though, might realize a $8 glass is pretty cheap and that most people expect to pay something like $9 at minimum, especially if the bar's cocktails are $9 or more. So now that $35 bottle becomes a $9 or $10 glass, which some people would consider a ripoff considering the bottle probably retails for no more than $9.

Of course, the opposite could be true for high-end wines: A by-the-glass pour of a bottle listed for $150 on the menu could break down to $30 per glass, which is steep. But the restaurant might want to have some schmancy Champagne on the list around the holidays, so they list it for $22 to encourage people to order it. That's could be considered a decent deal. But this is all hypothetical, your results may vary, beware the stingy pour, etc. A friend of mine who's an assistant general manager at a wine bar says she'll often get good deals on bottles from under-the-radar winemakers or lesser-known regions. Unless you're a wine buyer, how would you know what a bottle wholesalers for anyway? Oh right, because you're someone's know-it-all, fun-ruining relative.

Another reason people are wary of wine by the glass is freshness issues. You see the bartender pull off that weird vacuum cork stopper, and it gets you wondering just how long that bottle's been open anyway. No bartender worth their salt will knowingly serve you stale wine, but some shady restaurants try to get away with it. (Restaurant has 16 wines by the glass? Skip it. No one can go through wine that fast.) And remember you can always send it back if it tastes old and ask that the bar open a new bottle. A little rule of thumb: Think about how many glasses of the house Chardonnay a restaurant probably sells through every day. That's less likely to be stale than some obscure Greek wine by the glass for sale at a sports bar outside Gary, Indiana. Use your noggin.

And as for what to say to your brother-in-law... you can tell him Salty told him to kiss off. If you're only going to drink one glass of a certain type of wine, then why buy it by the bottle? And if you want wine with dinner, why order a cocktail? The biggest waste of money at a restaurant is to order food or drink you don't want or won't like—and that's true 100% of the time.

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