Restaurant Wine Lists Are Put on Notice

Restaurant wine practices are a sour subject. Earlier in the year ran a story on the top five “rip-offs” and restaurant wine prices came in on the list. Often with a 400% above wholesale markup, restaurants are passing off bad wine at high prices and often in inferior stemware with a less than knowledgeable staff. As I type this I can hear restaurant owners around the US complaining about high overhead, stemware breakage, and loss, there is obviously a more balanced way to sell wine.

It’s time to call out the good restaurant wine lists and put the bad ones on notice. Nothing speaks louder than the court of public opinion and we vote with our wallets. With this new series I hope to provide wine lovers a preview of area restaurant wine practices. With this information, you can make informed dining decisions.  I don’t review food but stay tuned and we’ll explore the often seedy world of restaurant wine.


To keep things simple I’ll be looking at three basic elements, price, selection and presentation. I’ll evaluate each section and award a 5 point score (similar to how I review wine). Each restaurant will also receive an overall score.


I understand the need to make a profit. People go to restaurants for the experience, the atmosphere and the service. All these things cost money. Evaluation of a restaurant’s wine prices will be based on basic math and mark up; the greater the markup, the lower the score. If you’re trying to sell $10 Smoking Loon Pinot Noir for $40 per bottle, you’re going to score low. However, if you’re like one local restaurant who sells $12 Kiona Cabernet/Merlot blend for $12 – WOW! Personally, I think a good balance is three glass pours should approximately equal the bottle price, example: $25 bottle of Barrister Rough Justice…$8 per glass.


In a previous article I asked the question, “Does Size Matter?” When evaluating selection, the size of your menu will not be as impressive as how you use your menu. A good wine list will have local product, including some from the quality producers in our city, and wine that is appropriate for the food being served.


Presentation can make a big impression and can often justify higher prices. Somehow all seems justified when laying down $50 for a strip steak when surrounded by hip, swanky decoration, cool lighting, posh seating, and service oriented staff. The same is true with the wine list. When evaluating selection, I’ll take into consideration menu layout (and accuracy), stemware, staff knowledge, wine temperature (very important), and service.

Over time, I hope that these posts bring awareness to restaurants who take as much pride in their wine as they do in their food. Attention to the finer points listed above can be the catalyst to selling more wine and creating a refined dining experience.


Ambrosia is a hip urban modern American restaurant tucked in a suburban strip mall on Argonne and Montgomery. They’ve recently been awarded the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for their wine list. The food is good and full of flavor. The atmosphere is nice, but it tough to get over the strip mall vibe (especially when sitting on the patio). The restaurant always a good choice for us but often overlooked considering some of the cool hot spots that have popped up downtown.

Price: 3/5

Here are some glass price examples that bring down the price score

  • Clos du Bois Reserve Chardonnay: RETAIL $15, By the Glass price $9
  • Manu Sauvignon Blanc: RETAIL $12, By the Glass price $7
  • Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel: RETAIL $14, By the Glass price $7
  • Barrister Rough Justice: RETAIL $20, By the Glass price $10
  • Gozzo Malbec: RETAIL $15, By the glass price $7

The glass pours seem less inspired than their menu selection and seem to run at a 2 pours to retail (or less). Better pricing exists with the bottle sales.

  • White Haven Pinot Noir: RETAIL $22, Bottle price $33
  • Amavi Syrah: RETAIL $28, Bottle price $38
  • Drew Bledsoe’s Doubleback: RETAIL: 85, Bottle price $100
  • Mountain Dome Brut: RETAIL: RETAIL $16, Bottle price $25

Selection: 4/5

Ambrosia boasts 120 different wines by the bottle. With their focus on American cuisine, the selection of Washington, California and Oregon wines appropriately dominate the list. There are occasional offerings from Italy and New Zealand and three  French wines (including Moet and Chandon Champagne). The selection of reds is 2 to 1 over whites. Twelve area wines are on the list from six producers. A few more area producers on the menu would be nice to see, considering the scope of the selection. The menu includes helpful wine pairings with each menu item.

Presentation: 4+/5

 The menu is nicely laid out, easy to read and includes region and vintage to assist in informed decision making. The waiter was knowledgeable about the wine, responded appropriately to all our questions and offered additional wine pairings. The stemware was appropriate for the food prices (not top of the line, but very nice). The only piece of the presentation that was not top notch was the wine temperature. We ordered a 07 Fidelitas Merlot (Retail $28, Bottle price $39). The wine was served at room temperature, which was probably 72-73 degrees. At this temperature, red wine can fall apart a little and present more chewy than at an appropriate temperature of 63-66 degrees. A temperature controlled fridge for their wine or a quick chill would have made the presentation perfect.

Overall Wine List Score:  4/5

Ambrosia Bistro and Wine Bar has a fantastic wine list. The overall score was hurt by the lack of inspiration in the ‘by the glass pours’ and the inflated pricing. A few of the ‘glass pours’ could be at the $6 range. A handful of additional local producers could also be added to the list. These changes would make an already great list, one of the tops in the town.

9211 E Montgomery Ave, Spokane WA


Owner of Nectar Tasting Room in Spokane, WA. (@nectarwine) Publisher of Spokane Wine Magazine (@spowinemag), author, speaker, consultant and internet marketer with Nectar Media (@nectarmedia)

10 comments on “Restaurant Wine Lists Are Put on Notice

  1. El Jefe

    hey DN – Great piece on pricing at restaurants, and a nice review. Looking at Ambrosia’s pricing, I can see a couple things:

    – The bottle price is 100% markup over the wholesale (which is typically 2/3 of retail, more or less). I would consider this “very good”, as you did.

    – The glass price is set at about the wholesale bottle price. In my limited experience (I haven’t done a broad survey of my customers, but…) this is a very common pricing formula for the restaurant industry.

    The deal is, when a restaurant opens a bottle to serve by the glass, the clock starts ticking. If no one else orders that wine that night, that bottle will be discarded with no profit made – but at least there also hasn’t been a loss.

    If you find a place that runs BTG at better than the wholesale price, it’s either because they enjoy high volume (yay! for them), the winery or distributor is offering special pricing for BTG program (which we often do to get our wines BTG), or they are pouring day old wine (boo!)

  2. Cecilia Dominic

    Great post! I’ve been pondering how to rate wine lists, so you’ve given me some guidance on that. Thanks, also, for mentioning temperature. Here in Atlanta “room temperature” wine can be even warmer than the one that was served to you, especially in a busy restaurant at peak times. It just kills the reds.

    Nicely done, as always!


  3. Virtuallars

    Great post! And in addition to stemware (yeah I’m one of those) I also appreciate a good decanter when ordering a bottle at a restaurant. Without one my wine never opens up by the time I’m done with dinner or the bottle!

    1. drinknectar

      Thanks for the comment and support, guys!

  4. Denise

    Great post. My beef is the size of the pour and the smell of the glasses…so maybe you can include that in your presentation scoring. I really am not happy when the pour is too small…no where near a glass of wine…more like a half a glass of wine. And when I go to smell a wine and all I can smell is detergent…I won’t go back.

  5. Hardy

    Dang– Those by the glass pours look horrible (not pricing, but selection)…

    Just wondering if beer drinkers think the same thing? I just spent $6 a beer for something that is $8 a six pack…

  6. Constance C

    I agree with you on some of these points – the issue with charging less for a bottle of wine arises when only one person orders a glass of wine and the rest of the bottle ends up going bad – if the restaurant is known for fresh, crisp wines that aren’t left out for days… prices might have to be higher.

    If having a better wines by the glass list means higher wines by the glass prices, I’ll take it :)

    Though – it never fails to shock me when I pay $17 for one glass of wine…

  7. Scott Cook

    Hi Josh,
    Thank you for the nice words about Ambrosia. I do have a couple of points I would like to clarify if I may.

    Princing; the princing at Ambrosia is usually at least competitive with the most other restaurants in the area, and we are usually priced a dollar or two under them for wines by the glass. I know that one restaurant charges $14 for the same glass I charge $10 for. Also, all of our pours are 6 oz. and some other restaurants use a 5 oz. pour. I have included a link from the Wall Street Journal about “standard” industry practices:

    Selection: I actually have 3 French wines on the list -the champagne and a couple of well known CNP’s, but in the past I have had wines on the list from Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone, Rioja, Rias Baixas, the Mosel, Sardinia, Tuscany, Veneto, Chile, Argentina, and all over Austrailia. They don’t sell well, so I give my Guests what they want. Northwest wines. I wish I had the space to keep more “esoteric” wines, but I only have enough space to stock what sells. There are a couple of restaurants that come to mind that have extensive wine lists with hundreds of choices, but I would almost guarantee you that 99% of their wine sales come from 20-30 labels, and the rest are just there for bragging rights.

    Presentation: point well taken about the bottle temperatures, and I have tried to mitigate this as well as I can, but as self funded owner operators, we just didn’t have the funds (or the room) to put in a ton of expensive refrigeration. We are also going back to using all Reidel glasses. I did so in the past, but they are such fragile creatures that we were breaking a couple a day. At $5-6 a pop, that added up really quickly, but they have released a new line that seems to be stronger while still having the Reidel brand quality.

    Again, thanks for the great review, and I applaud your efforts and vision to bring the Spokane wine scene the recognition it deserves.

    Scott Cook
    Ambrosia Bistro

    1. drinknectar

      Scott, thanks for coming by and thanks for chatting with me. I chose you guys for the first review, because you clearly do most things very well. I’m probably pretty hard on the pricing issue from a customer perspective and not as a business owner. I appreciate the insight for the readers.

      Sorry, I missed your other two Frenchies – I think it’s totally appropriate that you have limited overseas selection. You’re an American Fusion restaurant and the wines you select pair very well.

      To be honest, as I pointed out in the review, I think the glasses you have are very nice. They don’t have to be “name brand” to be the right functioning glass.

      Keep up the good work, you set the bar pretty high with the first review.




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