Should You Really Order the Second-Cheapest Wine?

Never order the second-cheapest wine, say many people. But do they know what they’re missing?
Never order the second-cheapest wine, say many people. But do they know what they’re missing?


  • Diners have long debated whether ordering such wines—the classic ‘I’m not a cheapskate’ move—yields hidden values. Our columnist polls the pros and discovers some gems lurking in plain sight.

“I HAVE GOOD NEWS and bad news," I told my friend Holly as we sat down to dinner recently at Koloman restaurant in Manhattan. “I’m buying the wine. But it has to be the second-cheapest one on the list."

Ordering the second-cheapest wine has long been put forward as a strategy, but whether it will get you the best or the worst value—or whether anyone actually orders this way—remains up for debate. According to one theory, many people order the second-cheapest wine because they want a good price without appearing to be the sort of cheapskate who orders the cheapest bottle. A counter-theory says the second-cheapest wine is a bad value because those who create the lists anticipate this strategy and mark up the second-cheapest wine more than others, confident it will sell.

I’ve never paid attention to either premise because I’ve never ordered a wine in a restaurant based on price alone. But I certainly know people who have. How bad—or good—could such a wine be? I decided to find out.

Koloman’s beverage director, Katja Scharnagl, was more than game for the challenge of pairing our meal with one of her second-cheapest wines. There were several options at the second-cheapest price of $55. (The cheapest wines were $50). Scharnagl chooses all her wines with the same care, from the $50 to the four-figure options. And yet, she said, no one ever orders the cheapest ones. Most of the bottles she sells are priced at $150-$200.

From the various $55 bottles on offer, Scharnagl chose the 2020 Sylvain Morey Bastide du Claux, a white from the Luberon region in France’s southern Rhône Valley. Left to my own devices, I would have overlooked this wine and focused instead on the Koloman list’s many great whites from Austria and Burgundy that cost a good bit more. But the Morey wine was truly delicious, with lush, ripe fruit balanced by bright acidity—an ideal match for the fennel tagliatelle and smoked trout Holly and I had.

Scharnagl had shot down the theory that customers tend to order the second-cheapest wine—at least at her establishment. But I wondered if diners at high-end restaurants in other cities are more likely to order the second-cheapest wine than diners in New York are. More importantly, I wanted to know how other wine professionals organize and price their lists, and if they too are offering good wines in the lower price range.

Alex Cuper, general manager and wine director of El Che Steakhouse & Bar in Chicago, reported that a good number of his customers do look on the lower end of his list, which features only South American wines, ranging between $48 and $1,400. “I think there is a ton of value in South American wine," said Cuper. Nevertheless, the “sweet spot" for his customers is $95-$100. He has two second-cheapest wines: J. Bouchon Canto Sur, a blend of Carménère, Carignan and País, and the 2021 Susana Balbo Crios Torrontes, which comes from a top Argentine winemaker. At $49, both are just a dollar more than his cheapest wines, of which there are several at $48, including the Santa Julia Blanc de Blanc, an Argentine sparkling made from Chardonnay.

“I’ve worked in places where they mark up the cheaper wines more," Cuper said. But he emphasized that this is not his practice at El Che. “We try to keep the same mark up throughout: about two and half times wholesale," he said. (New York restaurant wine prices are most often marked up anywhere from 3½ to even five times their wholesale price.)

Alex Ring, wine director of both Proxi and Sepia restaurants in Chicago, said he does tend to see more customers exhibiting value consciousness—possibly a particularly Midwestern brand of pragmatism, he postulated. “I get a lot of people looking on the lower end of the list," he said. The two second-cheapest options at Sepia are both white. “I think cheap white wine is often better than cheap red wine," he said. “It’s harder to find a good red at that price point."

The second-cheapest wine on the Proxi list is the Borgoluce Lampo Prosecco at $56, while at Sepia, the two second-cheapest wines, both priced at $48, are the 2022 Allan Scott New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a wine known by many drinkers, and the 2020 Skouras Moscofilero, a less-familiar option. Diners willing to try something new might well find the latter, an aromatic dry white from a good Greek producer, rewarding.

At the three restaurants in the John Howie Restaurant Group, based in Greater Seattle, diners frequently choose from the bottom (or near-bottom) of the list, said the company wine director/partner Erik Liedholm. At Seastar Restaurant & Raw Bar, for example, the second-cheapest wine is priced at just $28 a bottle. The 2021 O&T Les Gourmets Sauvignon, from Touraine in the Loire Valley, is a delight to drink, said Liedholm. He called it “Sancerre in culottes," a nod to the wine’s crisp, tangy character—ideal for summer drinking—and a phrase I am determined to steal.

Liedholm decried using the word “cheap" to describe lower-priced bottles. “Just because they are inexpensive doesn’t mean they are cheap," he said. In his opinion, finding a good inexpensive wine that will impress a guest is a greater accomplishment than selling something pricey. “Any idiot can recommend a good expensive wine," he said. Liedholm consistently marks up his cheapest wines more modestly than he does others.

At the Marsh House in Nashville, diners willing to experiment with a little-known name might try the 2020 Pascal Janvier Jasnières ($69), the second-cheapest wine on the list. From a tiny appellation in the northern Loire Valley of France, it’s always a hand-sell, said sommelier Todd Johnston. Made from the Chenin Blanc grape, it’s the sort of high-toned white his diners want, Johnston said, at a lower price than they would pay for a Chenin from a famous appellation such as Vouvray.

At Faubourg Montclair restaurant in Montclair, N.J.—less than 20 miles from Manhattan—patrons typically spend $100-$120 a bottle, said wine director Philippe Marchal. Yet there are attractive lower-priced wines on the list. The second-cheapest, the delightful 2021 Denis et Didier Berthollier Vieilles Vignes Chignin, goes for $55 a bottle.

This light, zesty, saline white, made from the native Jacquère grape by two brothers on their family estate in the Savoy region of France, proved a terrific match with my sole and fava beans. Yet not many customers know or order it, according to Faubourg sommelier Nicolas Charbonneau.

If I hadn’t been scouting the second-cheapest wine for this column, I would have overlooked it myself. But this experiment has taught me a valuable lesson: The second-cheapest wine is almost always one you should buy—as long as the list was created by a thoughtful, fair-minded professional. If you favor white wines and are open to trying something new, so much the better.

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