Wine ordering dos and don'ts: How to stay within your budget at a restaurant

Familiarise yourself with the wine list.
Familiarise yourself with the wine list. Photo: Quentin Jones

Five tips to stick to your budget when selecting a bottle for the table.

1. Value is fluid

Don't worry about looking cheap. There's nothing wrong with being on a budget and in a good restaurant cheaper wines are selected with the same care as those with Russian oligarch prices. You've probably heard that the second cheapest wine on the list carries the highest markup but that's far from universal, so don't get hung up on it. As Momofuku Seiobo's Max Gurtler says: "Ultimately it's about the experience and not about the price of the wine; the best wines aren't necessarily the most expensive."

2. Give pointers

Do tell the somm your price range. Embarrassed? Tim Perlstone, co-owner of Sydney's Wine Library, recommends discreetly pointing to a price on the list and saying: "I would like to stay around here."

Leanne Altmann, of Melbourne's Andrew McConnell restaurant group, suggests making eye contact, mentioning a wine style, and sliding your finger across to the price. "Hold it there, saying 'and I would love your recommendation'. The sommelier will then ask a few questions about the style of wine you enjoy, or make comments about the food you've ordered, and should give about three recommendations at price points around the one you have indicated."

In the absence of pointers, Joanna Smith, of Geelong's Igni, offers "a range of suggestions at different price points, narrowing down a shortlist and ultimately reading between the lines". Gurtler also offers "a few suggestions at various price points so that the guest can choose".

Leanne Altmann suggests discreetly signalling how much you'd like to spend.
Leanne Altmann suggests discreetly signalling how much you'd like to spend. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

3. Look online

Do see if the restaurant website has a wine list you can check before you go. As well as giving you a broad head start, a few minutes' research online will point to whether a straight percentage markup applies right across the list or – as is the practice at some restaurants – the biggest markups apply to the cheapest wines, especially well-known brands or grape varieties. If so, you may decide to spend a bit more to get better value and a more interesting drink.

4. Pre-arrange

Don't worry if there's no online list. "Get to the restaurant a little before your guests and speak to the sommelier in advance," says Altmann. "This is particularly helpful if you're entertaining corporate clients. It means that you can be open and honest about price points and styles, organise a wine perfect for the occasion, and use the time you would have spent reading the wine list to focus on your guests. Win-win."

5. Enter the unknown

Do consider unusual varieties. Mike Bennie, wine writer and co-founder of Sydney drinks store P&V Wine & Liquor Merchants, says that by and large, they don't command the same premium as better-known varieties and styles. "Australia's 'lesser-known' grape varieties have come in leaps and bounds in quality, and there's so much good drinking in this 'unknown' zone."