Is It OK to Tip on the Pre-Tax Amount? With Wine, the Rules Can Get Murky

The “appropriate” amount depends on who is ordering the wine—and who is serving it.
The “appropriate” amount depends on who is ordering the wine—and who is serving it.

Summary

The question of what to tip can be a tense one, perhaps even more so when it comes to tipping on wine. Our wine columnist queried diners and wine professionals alike to determine what’s fair for both once the bill comes around.

EVERYONE HAS an opinion about tipping these days. How much is enough? Calculated before or after tax? The restaurant’s suggested figure, or something else entirely?

What to tip on wine seems to be a particularly thorny subset of the question. The “appropriate" amount depends on who is ordering the wine—and who is serving it. What percentage is right? I sought answers from diners, sommeliers, bartenders and even an academic who studies the behavior of that most mysterious of creatures, the average consumer.

But first I talked to my doctor, Martin M. Feuer. The topic of tipping came up when I saw him in New York a few weeks ago. Though Dr. Feuer doesn’t drink wine, he considers it appropriate to split restaurant bills evenly with his wine-drinking friends—who, in turn, apparently have strong opinions on what constitutes a reasonable wine tip. Dr. Feuer wanted my take.

One friend told Dr. Feuer that his tip depends on “how much interaction" he has with the sommelier: If he simply orders a bottle from the restaurant’s wine list he doesn’t tip as much as he would if he sought the sommelier’s help. And if the bottle costs $200 or more, this friend tips less—15% on wine, 20% on food—than he would on a wine that costs half as much (in which case he would tip 20% across the board). Another friend doesn’t believe in tipping on the total amount including sales tax but, rather, tips on the pretax amount.

I told Dr. Feuer I’d never heard of delineating separate tips for wine and food, and I have never considered calculating a pretax tip. I told him that I would ask some fellow diners and restaurant professionals for their views.

When I posed wine-tipping questions to Bernadette James, who is both sommelier and bartender at the Living Room and Stages at One Washington in Dover, N.H., she said she considers a tip to be her customer’s assessment of her job. “I believe I should be tipped on my performance," James said. At the Living Room, she noted, most customers tip 20% on the post-tax tally, though some are more generous. Very few of the restaurant’s diners tip on a pre-tax amount. James noted that diners who require less help than others in choosing a bottle still tip well, which she considers a sign of appreciation of the wine list she has taken care to create.

The customers who tip pre-tax at Bibliotheque wine bar and bookstore in New York tend to be from an older generation, observed wine and beverage director Scott Woltz. Such customers are “more my parents’ age," said the 44-year-old Woltz. (His parents are in their 70s.)

While Woltz is a salaried employee, the wine bar staff works for minimum wage plus tips, so he is particularly attuned to the importance of those tips—so much so that he recently programmed the tip screen of the wine bar’s point-of-sale system to suggest three possible tip percentages: 18, 20 and 22%. Diners also have the option of writing in their own figure, Woltz said, but most customers opt to tip 18% or 20% on the post-tax amount.

Woltz does see an exception: customers who tip with a “dive bar mentality." They might order two glasses of wine (ranging from $15 to $26 each) at the bar and carry them to their seats, leaving behind a $1 tip for each glass. “That’s why I’m pushing my staff to do more table service," Woltz explained.

Most of the friends I consulted for this column leave a 20% post-tax tip regardless of the price of the wine or the degree to which the sommelier has lent assistance, though very few spend as much as $200 a bottle. My friend Barbara said that if she ever did spend that much on wine, she’d be happy to tip 20% on that number as well.

Barbara, who lives in Denver, appears to be in accord with other diners in her city. According to Carlin Karr, wine and beverage director of the Boulder-based Frasca Hospitality Group, “We see a standard 20% or more, for which we are grateful." At all four Frasca Group restaurants in Denver and Boulder, tips are shared among all employees, front and back of house. There are none of the surcharges for the use of credit cards that one finds at some other restaurants, Karr noted, and there are no suggested tip amounts. Guests who receive extra attention from the sommelier—perhaps a phone conversation before the dinner to select a particular wine and arrange to have it decanted a few hours prior—often tip more.

All the restaurant professionals I spoke with said they are generous tippers when dining out. As Karr put it, “Otherwise I feel like I’m wronging my tribe." But, like so many diners these days, many of them suffer from “tipping fatigue." Erik Liedholm, wine director of the Seattle-based John Howie restaurant group, said that even when buying a newspaper at a coffee shop he gets “the obligatory stare down" for a tip from the person behind the counter.

Liedholm said that he and his Seattle peers have seen a slight decrease in tips postpandemic, but he noted that Seattle’s minimum wage is relatively high ($19.97 an hour). His wine team receives 6% of bottled-wine sales and $5 for every BYO corkage (patrons who bring their own bottle). Furthermore, the team pools all their tips “so no one is penalized for working a slower service," Liedholm said.

Hoping to gain more perspective on all these disparate tipping practices, I called William Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y., who studies tipping practices. Lynn said he normally spends “around $30 on wine" when he dines out. While he professed a lack of expertise in tipping on wine specifically, he thought the same principles that apply to tipping generally should apply in this case: “Wine is a part of the bill. You tip 15-20%."

From his research, Lynn has gleaned five main reasons why people tip. The first reason is to reward good service, he said. The second is to help servers make a good living, and the third is the hope of getting better future service. The fourth reason to tip is for “social approval—whether it’s approval of the server or third-party observers," Lynn explained. And the fifth comes down to obligation: Tipping is simply what one is expected to do.

I certainly tip to recognize good wine service, though I tip well, too, if I choose a bottle myself: As James noted, it takes expertise to put together a good restaurant wine list. In BYO restaurants, which are quite plentiful in my home state of New Jersey, to make sure that the staff doesn’t bear an undue financial burden for that policy, I tip as if the cost of a good bottle were included in the bill. Finally, in line with Lynn’s fifth reason, I tip well because until more American restaurants settle on a better way to remunerate their staff, it’s just what you do if you’re dining out.

Email Lettie at wine@wsj.com.

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