How often have you looked at a wine list, found a wine you're familiar with and realized that for the price of one glass, you could practically buy a whole bottle? The markup on a glass of wine is considerable, especially when you realize the restaurant is probably getting the wine for a lower price than what you pay at the store.

So, next it's smart to think about volume. At many restaurants, it's cheaper to order a bottle of wine than it is to order by the glass, especially if two or more people are having wine. The question is, which bottle? If you're on a budget, you'll want to stay with a lower-priced bottle. But is it a good idea to buy the cheapest bottle on the menu?

Sometimes, yes — if you understand how many restaurant wine lists are priced. Restaurants know that people don't want to look cheap and customers will often bypass the least expensive bottle and order the second or third least expensive bottles on the list.

But it's very likely that those are the bottles the restaurant paid the least for, according to Business Insider. This information comes from a recent book, "How to Drink Like a Billionaire," by Mark Oldman. He says that the second or third least-expensive bottles can be marked up the most simply because the restaurants are on to our very human desire to not look like a tightwad.

Navigating the wine menu

If you're at a restaurant that cares about its wine, ordering the least expensive bottle of wine will probably be your best value in both price and quality. So how do you know if a restaurant cares about its wine list? I'd say that if you're at a chain restaurant that you can find in or around a mall, you're not getting a well-curated wine list. (I'm sure there are exceptions.) According to Oldman, other clues that show a restaurant has put some thought into its wine list are the inclusion of interesting wines on the list, a staff that's knowledgable about the wine, and a menu that includes thoughtful commentary about the wines.

I asked my wine industry friends about this, and not surprisingly, I got little response. No one confirmed it, but no one denied it either, save for one friend who said her chain restaurant does not follow this trend. I did get a couple of pieces of information in response to my wine list question that's interesting, so I thought I'd share them.

  • Adding some bottles that are over $200 to the list can increase sales of the $100 bottles.
  • Restaurants may offer higher mark-up wines that are sold only to restaurants (meaning you can't buy it in a store) because customers have no way to compare the prices.

When I go out to a restaurant that offers good wine, I don't mind the mark-up. I understand that restaurants work on a very slim profit margin, and alcohol helps to raise that profit margin slightly. But, I'm still looking for quality, and I'm usually on a tight budget. Knowing there's a good chance the cheapest bottle is a smarter choice than the second or third cheapest bottle is knowledge I'll store away and use.

I'll order the least expensive bottle on the list — if it appeals to me — with my head held high and confidence in my understanding that I'm not a cheapskate, I'm a savvy wine consumer.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Go ahead, order the least expensive bottle of wine on the menu
Restaurants are on to our wine ordering habits, so the cheapest bottle of wine on the list may really just be the best value.