This post originally appeared in the August 12, 2019 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.
I used to be one of the legion who ordered the second-cheapest bottle of wine on any restaurant menu. Though often I would have rather gone ahead with the first-cheapest bottle, knowing I’d be just as happy with it, the well-documented phenomenon of wine shame would rear up, and I’d get too self-conscious to order what I really wanted — or could afford.
There are so many anxieties surrounding a wine order: What if the server or my friends judges me for having bad taste? What if the chef spits in my food because they’re insulted by my pairing? What if they kick me out because I’m poor?! Not that these things have ever happened, but what if I was so declassé and so offensive in my order that they feel they have no choice but to call the International Confederacy of Restaurants* and bar me from dining out ever again?
But after some hard work on myself, mainly in the Not Giving a Fuck department, I’ve freed myself from this paradigm, and I invite you to do the same. Go ahead and get the cheapest bottle of wine with a clean conscience.
If you need a specific reason, sommeliers have debunked the idea that you’re somehow gaming the system by spending an extra $5 on the not-cheapest bottle. Courtney Schiessl, sommelier and writer, says the idea that the second-cheapest bottle is the best deal is “pretty much a myth.” Firstly, if the wine is on the list, it means a restaurant wants you to drink it, and most of the time they’re not going to offer something they don’t think is good. But secondly, wine prices are determined by a lot of factors: the size of the vineyard, how much the vineyard pays its workers, and how well known the wine varietal or region is. Price and quality are not always directly related.
And besides, restaurants have a lot of power over how much they price wines. “If a wine director really loves a particular wine, or wines from a particular region, she might charge a lower markup for those bottles in order to entice guests to try them,” says Schiessl. This is plenty of reason not to be shy about your budget. “[Your sommelier] can tell you which wines are under-the-radar steals, and most importantly, which wines in your budget will fit your taste preferences,” she says. Plus, it means the sommelier doesn’t have to guess what you’re willing to spend.
Some say it’s rude to discuss money openly, but those are typically the people who don’t want you to know just how much more of it they have than you — not to spare you embarrassment, but so you don’t recognize that capitalism is a scam and decide you’d rather eat the rich than whatever is put in front of you.
But even outside of class struggle, restaurants are a businesses, and they are in the business of wanting you to spend as much money as you can — emphasis on can, as in are able to. The whole point of offering $30 and $100 bottles of wine is so the restaurant has something for everyone. If price is your main concern, get the cheapest bottle. If price isn’t your main concern, but the cheapest bottle looks good, get it anyway! Dining out is meant to be a comforting experience, and if you’re so concerned about looking “not cheap” to your server or your friends, you won’t be able to enjoy your meal, regardless. — Jaya Saxena
*not a real thing… as far as we know.
P.S. You’ve probably noticed that wine bars are having a moment in cities across America. Here’s why.