Budgeting for a meal out entails a lot more than just scouting prices for a nice bone-in ribeye. If you plan to add pre-meal cocktails and a nice bottle (or two) of wine, your liquid expenses could dwarf your food bill. Some restaurants are notorious for sticking it to consumers when it comes to wine, and it isn’t unusual in Las Vegas or New York to pay 300-400%+ of retail prices per bottle. There seems to be a direct correlation between the “status” perception of the restaurant and the pain you will feel at the wine pump.

Spending about 10 minutes thinking about your wine consumption while planning a night out can be the difference between a relaxed, enjoyable dinner and nervously adjusting your mental calculator all night. Here’s a quick guide to strategy.

Step 1: Get the restaurant’s current wine list. Frequently they do not do a great job keeping their websites updated, so make sure to check the vintages on the Sauvignon Blanc selection to judge whether it’s current. For example, in early 2008 if you see their Sauvignon Blancs tend to be from vintage 2006, the site has probably been updated in the past few months.

If the list is outdated, unavailable, or (be very afraid) doesn’t list bottle pricing, contact the restaurant and ask them to email or fax you a copy of the current list. If this is one of those 100 page lists and is not available by email, ask them to fax you the section you are most interested in, ie California Pinot Noir.

Once you have the list, depending on how well versed you are with retail prices, you may be able to ascertain their mark-up %. If not, just take three or four of the wines and type them into a Google search with the vintage year; you will find the release prices and what shops are typically asking for the wine. Generally speaking, if the restaurant is asking less than double the retail pricing, it would be considered “fair” and assuming the selection is good, you’re in good shape.

Step 2: If you find that the mark-up is more than you can stomach, find out whether the restaurant runs weekly wine specials. Frequently, restaurants will run wine discounts or wine-inclusive prix fixe dinners early in the week to attract more business on slow days. This may bring their prices more in line with your expectations.

Step 3: If you live in a state that allows you to bring your own wine (primarily on the west coast), this is almost always a great money-saver. Not only do you have confidence that you will be enjoying a wine you like and that it has been stored correctly, but you will almost always spend less even after combining the bottle cost plus the restaurant corkage.

This step has a lot of red tape and as they say “your mileage may vary.” It always pays to find out exactly what the restaurant’s policy is on corkage. Some will not permit you to bring a wine that is already offered on their list or will require that you purchase a bottle from the list in addition to the bottle you supply. Others will only allow you to bring a single bottle. Some newer restaurants are charging escalating corkage, i.e. $20 for the first bottle, $30 for the second and $40 for the fourth, evidently to steer customers toward buying at least some of their wine off the list.

Corkage ranges anywhere from free (some restaurants have a free corkage policy all week while others run free corkage specials, again usually earlier in the week) to $50 or more per bottle. It’s a safe bet that if the corkage is steep, the mark-up on list wines is even more extravagant, so it still may be the way to go.

A couple hints on the corkage game. For parties of more than two, I suggest buying a wine off the list in addition to any special wine you bring for the night. I usually buy a white off the list to go with the appetizers and bring my own red for the main course. In addition to making your server aware that you are not just trying to skimp (whether true or not), frequently the server will waive your corkage fee if you have supplemented your own wine with something off their list.

In addition, if your server or sommelier expresses any interest whatsoever in the wine you have brought, offer a taste. This leads to interesting conversation, a more enjoyable evening, and again you may end up having your corkage waived as a result.

Step 4: If you don’t live in a state that typically allows corkage, there are still options. Some great small restaurants allow you to BYOB if they don’t have a liquor license or are located in a “dry” town. Some restaurants will allow you to bring wine in for an event or special occasion if you ask nicely in advance.

Step 5: If buying off the list, always spend a minute to talk to the sommelier. Find out what he or she considers the best values on the list. If there is no sommelier, a safe bet is that the 2nd least expensive wine in a varietal category is one of the beverage director’s favorites. This is an unwritten rule in the restaurant wine list game.

Finally, there is also absolutely nothing wrong with forgoing the list altogether and simply telling the sommelier or server “I want to spend less than $50 on a full-bodied red that goes well with the short-ribs.” Their job is to make you happy with your entire meal.

Good luck, and happy value hunting.

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