As a restaurant owner, you want to make good margins on wine—but wine is about giving pleasure, and a customer will only order a second glass if the wine tastes good, no matter what the price. You want to serve wines that complement your food and offer good value—that is, a favorable ratio of quality to price. In the lower end of the scale, this means finding cheap wines that don’t taste cheap.
Here’s our cheat sheet of five affordable wines to fill five holes in your wine program. All of these wines retail at wine shops for under $20, most under $15 per bottle, and some less than $10 (and you can do better wholesale, of course.)
Pink for the patio
If you have a back garden or just want to invite your customers to linger over an appetizer or a long evening of summer snacks, you’ll need rosé. One of our favorites is Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare, which practically screams for oysters, avocados, crabcakes and goat cheese. It’s bone dry and mineral rich, with hints of lime zest and herbs. A taste is certain to sway anyone who thinks they don’t like pink wine.
Luscious California Chardonnay
Plenty of people order only Chardonnay, and when they reach for it, they’re likely expecting a smooth, rich white wine with at least some time in oak. Too much oak, though, will clash with the food you’re serving, and it’s hard to make good oaked wines cheaply. (Wood chips just don’t taste the same as expensive barrels.) We recommend offering a slightly more expensive California Chardonnay with a gentle oak presence. One of our favorite options is Fritz Russian River Valley Chardonnay, which balances warm spice with fresh acidity and herbal character. It’s an elegant wine that pairs well with cream-based sauces and soups.
Crisp white for fish
We’re wild about Vina Robles’ White 4, an unusual blend of Vermentino, Verdelho, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc from Paso Robles, which is about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It balances fragrant peach notes with enough starfruit-like tartness to pucker your lips a little—think of it as a squeeze of lime or lemon to accompany any fish dish on your menu.
Cheap but tasty bubbly
For toasts, brunch and for a why-not treat by the glass, you need affordable bubbly on your wine list. One of our favorite value options is Col Vetoraz Prosecco, which is well-balanced and full of chalky minerality. We also really like Domaine Ste Michelle’s Luxe and the Astoria Lounge Cuvée. None of these have the focus and finesse of Champagne, but they don’t have the high price tag either.
Red wine for meat
We love red wines that balance dark fruit flavors with a good dose of acidity and not too much alcohol; these wines will enhance, not overpower, your food. We’re really impressed with Substance Syrah from Walla Walla, Washington. It has lovely blackberry and black currant flavors and tart juiciness. Hints of smoke come through, too, making this a great wine to serve with grilled or seared meats and grilled vegetables. This wine is a collaborative effort between two superstar Washington wineries, Gramercy Cellars and Waters Winery.