Wine in Restaurants: By the Glass or Buy the Bottle?

By Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

In most restaurants, you have to choose your wine from a menu that tells you nothing but the names of the wines and the price per bottle. Welcome to the restaurant wine list.

Restaurant wine lists can be a challenge. Typically, they don’t tell you enough about the wines. Sometimes, nothing on the list appeals to you, at least in your price range; other times, you have so many choices that you’re immobilized. Some lists simply aren’t accurate.

But believe it or not, restaurateurs really do want you to buy their wine. You enjoy your meal more, going home a more satisfied customer. True, sometimes some restaurants have made it difficult for you to choose wine, but fortunately, the old ways are changing.

Wines available for sale fall into two categories:

  • Wines by the glass: The glass of wine that you order can be ordinary or finer, inexpensive or higher-priced, depending on the restaurant.

    In some restaurants and in bars, you can buy an anonymous glass of wine called the house wine. House wine offerings usually include one white and one red (and sometimes a sparkling wine), and these wines can be purchased by the glass or sometimes in a carafe. You get a restaurant’s house wine when you simply ask for a glass of white or a glass of red.

    Many restaurants today do not offer a standard house wine, opting instead to give customers a wider choice — premium wines by the glass. These wines by the glass are generally better quality than standard house wines. They’re usually also available by the bottle.

  • Wines by the bottle: Buying an actual bottle of wine is the norm in most restaurants. You usually choose the wine from a wine menu or wine list.

    Standard, or regular, wines are available by the bottle from the restaurant’s standard, or regular, wine list. These wines can range from moderately-priced to luxury offerings, depending on the restaurant.

    Reserve wines are those wines featured on a special wine list, sometimes called a reserve wine list. They include older or rarer wines, usually very expensive.

Just a glass, please

When circumstances are such that a glass of wine makes the most sense, chances are you’ll need to order a wine by the glass.

Depending on the restaurant, your options are the house wine or a premium wine by the glass — which, thankfully, is increasingly the norm.

A restaurant’s premium by-the-glass wines are red, white, and sparkling wines that are a lot better in quality than its basic house red or white. As such, a restaurant sells these wines at a higher price, usually in the range of $12 to $20 per glass.

A restaurant might offer only one or two premium whites and reds, or it might offer more choices. These premium wines aren’t anonymous beverages, like the house red and white, but are identified for you somehow — on the wine list, on a separate card, verbally, or sometimes even by a display of bottles.

Usually you’ll find a restaurant’s premium glass wines listed on the menu itself, under a heading such as Wines by the Glass, or on the wine list, where a by-the-glass price appears in a separate column for a few wines.

Ordering premium wines by the glass is a fine idea, especially if you want to limit your consumption or if you and your guests want to experiment by trying several wines.

You may not always agree on which bottle to choose, and so ordering wines by the glass solves that problem. Or, you may not want to drink an entire bottle; for example, at lunch, when you have to return to work, just a glass of wine is perfect.

One of the risks in ordering wines by-the-glass is that they can taste tired if they have not been kept properly. In those situations, ask the server, “How long has this bottle been open?” Ideally, the wine was opened that day. If the server doesn’t know, that’s a bad sign.

You might end up paying more if you order a bottle’s worth of individual glasses than you would if you had ordered a whole bottle to begin with.

If two or three of you are ordering the same wine by the glass — and especially if you might want refills — ask how many ounces are poured into each glass (usually 5 to 8 ounces) and compare the price with that of a 25.4-ounce (750-ml) bottle of the same wine. (You usually do have the option of buying an entire bottle.) Sometimes, the cost of only three glasses is equivalent to the price of a whole bottle.

Some restaurants offer an interesting selection of half-bottles. Check out these bottles. Buying half-bottles (which hold two large glasses) instead of wines-by-the glass will save you money and insure a fresh pour from an unopened bottle. This is especially important for Champagne or sparkling wine.

Choosing from the bottle list

Most of the time, you’ll probably end up turning to the restaurant’s standard wine list to choose your wine. The term standard wine list is used to distinguish a restaurant’s basic wine list from the special, or reserve, wine list, which certain restaurants have. Unfortunately, nothing is standard about wine lists at all.

They come in all sizes, shapes, and degrees of detail, accuracy, and user friendliness. Some wine lists offer wines by the glass as well as by the bottle and indicate prices for by the glass and by the bottle in separate columns.

Special, or reserve, wine lists of rare wines supplement the standard wine list in some restaurants. These special lists appeal to two types of customers: very serious wine connoisseurs and “high rollers.” If you’re not in either category, don’t even bother asking whether the restaurant has such a list.