When I sat down for my first meal at Per Se a decade ago, our waiter said one of the most terrifying things this penny-pinching graduate student had ever heard at restaurant: "We recommend ordering wine pairings at the same price as the tasting menu." That meant $150 before tax and tip on beverages alone. I nearly barfed.
"That's a bit more than we're comfortable spending," I replied, and admittedly I'm paraphrasing here as this all took place in 2004. "Could we do something for, say, $100 per person?" The waiter nodded, and went on to explain that there was no set-in-stone price for pairings at Per Se.
That was the night I learned that the price of a wine pairing, whether "set" or "suggested," is often quite flexible. And since then, negotiating the price of pairings has become a regular part of my interactions with sommeliers at tasting menu restaurants. Sometimes it's just that my personal budget is lower than what the venue wants to charge. And sometimes it's nice to enjoy these long meals without having to consult the glass list, or half-bottle list, every two to three courses.
So if you're looking to save a few bucks (or spend a few extra dollars) on pairings, here's the best way to do it, along with a few hints on how to get a better pairing experience regardless of what you pay. The larger lesson, after all, is that the best sommeliers and beverage directors are almost always excited to adapt their beverage selections for individual diners. The key is you just have to be willing to communicate those preferences. Right here, I show you how.
1. Ask how much the wine pairing actually costs. I've been to more than a few restaurants where the price of the wine pairing isn't printed, and where waiters will ask if you'd "like to do a pairing," without mentioning the price. Not cool. Or sometimes a waiter will say "the wine pairing is three quarters the price of the menu," to which I like to respond, "well for those who don't have a calculator, how precisely much is that?"
2. Discuss your budget without getting all weird about it. This is key, and if you start eating at a lot of chef's counter spots, where everyone sits close together at a communal table, you're going to have to get used to other guests (or your date) overhearing how much you'll pay for wine. Deal with it. Tell the sommelier how much you'd like to spend on a pairing and go from there. And let the record state that I've never encountered a situation where I was told pairings were only available at the set, published price.
3. Consider the 63 percent rule when bargaining: The Restaurant at Meadowood charges $500 for its chef's menu, with pairings generally starting at $350, so asking for a $100 option would be a ballsy move — one has to be reasonable! Luckily, during my meal there last year, the sommelier was kind enough to suggest a "lower-priced" $225 option, cheaper than the regular pairing by just over one-third. Sold. And that brings us to my 63 percent rule; I try not to negotiate the price of a wine pairing to lower than two thirds of the full pairing (Technically, two-thirds works out to 66 percent, as one commenter notes, but I'll stick with 63 percent since that was the Meadowood discount and since it'll save the consumer a few extra bucks!)
4. If the pairing is less then $90, maybe don't negotiate it down at all. Because, really.
5. Split a pairing. This is a great option if your personal budget falls way below the 63 percent rule. So if there are two of you, have one person order the pairing, and share it. Nine times out of ten, one pairing is enough for two.
6. Ask if there's a half pairing. In additional to regular and reserve pairings, some restaurants like The Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare or Forage in Salt Lake City offer half-pairings or modified pairings for guests who don't drink as much. Keep in mind that half-pairings aren't necessarily half-price. Brooklyn Fare asks $95 for four wines by the glass, which is about 63 percent of the price of its six-glass, $150 pairing.
7. Discuss your wine preferences at the beginning of the meal. Before a long tasting commences, a waiter will often inquire whether diners have any "allergies or aversions." It's a smart courtesy and I wish more sommeliers did the same, asking guests about likes and dislikes when they order long, expensive pairings. So until that becomes the norm, speak up! What I usually say is this: "I love beer, I just don't want it in my tasting menu pairing."
8. Don't be afraid to send back pairings. Wine staffers will often pour you a taste of each pairing before you commit to the whole pour. There's a reason for that. It gives you an opportunity to ask for something else if you don't like it. If you're not offered this taste and don't like the pour, then send it back! Good sommeliers will learn from active likes and dislikes and adjust future pours accordingly.
9. Ask for the pairings to stop if you've had too much. During a meal at Alinea in the spring of 2011, a patron at an adjacent table expressed hesitancy about ordering a pairing. The waiter responded that if at any point during the meal she wanted to halt the flow of wine, she wouldn't be charged for more than what she drank. It's a smart policy and I like to hope that other good culinary establishments wouldn't charge the full price of a pairing if a guest stopped halfway through. Why would a restaurant risk having someone over-consume because he's obligated to pay for glasses of wine that haven't yet been poured?
10. Make it clear that you're in the sommelier's hands. I like wine pairings for the same reasons I like tasting menu venues; it's nice leave much of the decision making to the professionals. If one can trust the chef at a no-choice restaurant, one can usually trust the sommelier, who's probably put quite a bit of thought into matching the right wines with the right foods. So if you give direction to the wine selections, be humble about it, and let the beverage staff know you're you're excited to sample something new. That's what sommeliers live for — not selling a $800 wine pairing at a 1,000 percent markup — but rather getting you to expand your horizons by trying an off-the-beaten-track grape from a rare producer. And that's why, if you can afford to splurge, sometimes it's nice to go for the full pairing at the published price.