First point to know is this: There are NO deals when it comes to purchasing wine by the bottle at a restaurant. So don’t pick up a wine list with that in mind. But there is a difference between “normal” restaurant mark-up and ripping off the patron.
This is not based on anything other than my own experience and observation over the years. I always check the wine list of restaurants even when I don’t intend to have any wine. It’s fun and it’s really cheap—always a plus in my world—and it helps me to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s reasonable and where. What you should really be interested in is whether you are getting gouged when you buy a bottle in which case, if you really want wine with your meal—and why wouldn’t you—your best bet is to go to the “by the glass” listing.
So what is “normal” or better—typical? I have found that standard mark-up on a lower end bottle of wine at a run of the mill restaurant is around 100% over retail meaning if you can buy a bottle of wine at the supermarket for $8 it will cost you $16 at one of these restaurants. That percentage seems to decrease as you go higher up on the price of the wine but I believe it’s a pretty good rule of thumb. Last night I just happened to read an article in the Wine Enthusiast that said wine markups can run as high as 500%! I assume these would not be the types of places I would frequent; ca-ching!
Yesterday I was in a local BBQ joint for lunch. Definitely nothing fancy. I had no intention of buying wine at lunchtime but wanted to see what they offered. Their list was very small and familiar. There were two bottles listed that I had just reviewed within the last two weeks. One was Finca El Portillo for which I paid $7 in a store. The price at this restaurant was a ridiculous $24! The other wine I was very familiar with was an Argentinian Malbec for which I paid $10 in a store. To have it with dinner would cost $27. This is gouging. In which case you make a choice; either you say to yourself, money is no object or you say to the wait staff, “I’ll have a glass of your house red, thanks!”
This is not to discourage buying wine in a restaurant; it is to help you to know what you’re getting. A good restaurant wine list is a great way to try a wine you cannot find anywhere else. That is worth something—though not a 200% inflation. And if the restaurant has premier wine by the glass (rather than a bulk house win) even paying $10 or $20 for a glass of a wine is a great way to taste some really nice wines that you might never want to spend on a bottle.
I would invite my colleague NW to add his comments to this as his experience runs with the much higher end restaurant lists. I’d be interested to know what he finds. In the meantime, it’s about time to raise a glass!