The Main Reason Wine By The Glass Is So Expensive At Restaurants

If you study a restaurant's wine list, you might notice that the bottles are priced significantly higher than in wine or liquor stores. Likewise, the price of a single glass will set you back more than it would if you were going off a bottle's retail price. Rest assured that this is not the global restaurant industry's bold-faced way of swindling customers out of more money. It's a means of staying in business.

Caleb Ganzer, the New York City French-Mediterranean bar Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels owner, told Food & Wine that those steep wine prices help restaurants cover operating costs. "When you buy a bottle in a store, you literally just pay the retailer to have bought it and the producer to have made it," he said. But when you shell out for a bottle at a restaurant, you're paying for "...the costs that come with enjoying it in a nice place."

When pouring individual glasses, restaurants are at an even higher risk of losing profits. When your server opens a bottle for a single pour, there's a possibility it won't get any more orders that night. According to Ganzer, opened bottles are ticking time bombs. After 24 hours, that liquid money is either going down the drain or into the glasses of the staff.

Who decided the price is right?

It would probably be beneficial if all the world's restaurants gathered once every two years in a grand hall to discuss by-the-glass wine prices, but the process is a little less communal. With that said, many restaurants abide by industry standards. In a February 2023 episode of the "VinePair Podcast," co-host Zach Geballe revealed that the prices on any given restaurant's wine list come down to its program director.

While Geballe, who used to run restaurant wine programs, admits that he often priced wine based on industry guidelines, he tried to list prices "... at levels where people felt they might be able to approach [them]."

To that end, he condemns restaurants that list static prices next to their by-the-glass wines. "I don't think a good wine program should just have a blanket percentage or markup that it applies to everything," he said.

As Geballe has it, it was collectively decided that glass pours should cost between $15 and $22, regardless of the restaurant's purchase price. Still, there's one crucial entity to consider before you boycott pricey by-the-glass wine on principle: restaurant staff.

It's an experience

The cost of wine at a restaurant not only keeps the lights on; it also helps pay the waitstaff. To that end, don't underestimate your server's wine knowledge if you want to get the most bang for your buck the next time you order a single glass of wine at a restaurant. Depending on the restaurant, most servers undergo at least basic wine training. They might not regale you with facts about wine's origins, but chances are they've been briefed on the restaurant's offerings. Moreover, they probably have thoughts on the wine you're interested in ordering.

When in doubt, ask your server their preference when you're having trouble deciding or want to hear them rattle off words like "salinity." You can think of their sage advice as a part of the drinking-out experience, and it might make you feel better about shelling out $15 for a glass of chilled Beaujolais.