Testing Out the Second-Cheapest Wine Principle

Is the second-cheapest wine on a wine list really a great deal? Or is it such a popular order that it's become a means of getting gouged? Megan Krigbaum goes on a crawl to test out the Second-Cheapest Wine Principle at ten of New York's top restaurants.

Second Cheapest Wine by the Glass

The unavoidable truth about wine lists is that, no matter what, one bottle has to hold the title of Cheapest Wine on the List. This designation comes with an oversized stigma that seems to single-handedly vilify both the wine and the person who created the list all at once, proving yet another truth: A lot of diners still think they’re getting swindled when it comes to ordering wine in restaurants. The assumption is that the cheapest bottle, no matter the price, is both junk and most certainly overpriced.

After years and years of flagrant belittling and philosophizing, a theory was born and has never vanished. We shall call it the Second-Cheapest Wine Principle, embraced by the distrusting cheapskates, new drinkers and light-pocketed daters alike. The SCWP is, simply: If you buy the second-cheapest wine, you—smart person—will be getting the best deal without looking cheap. This accepted truth is so widespread that it’s given rise to a whole mess of cynics who’ve suggested that restaurants are preying on the principle to make the second-cheapest wine the worst deal on the list.

So what is the current state of the SCWP? Is it a deal or not, and what kinds of wines is one bound to find one rung up from the bottom?

Obviously, there was only one way to find out: drink the second-cheapest (and also the cheapest and third-cheapest, for the people) wine by the glass at ten different New York City restaurants over the course of an evening. So I met up with PUNCH’s editor in chief, Talia Baiocchi, and we set to it.

Throughout the night, we split glasses of a broad spectrum of second-cheapest wines by the glass, an experiment meant to taste-test the success rate of this principle. (In all cases the wines by the glass were available by the bottle, and were either the second-cheapest, or at least near it.) The best ran the gamut from an impressive 2014 Salomon Undhof Hochterrassen grüner veltliner (bottled under screwcap) to a Finger Lakes riesling from Empire Estate (a wine made by The NoMad sommelier Thomas Pastuszak himself) to a broody, brawny Portuguese blend of touriga and tinta from winery Ribeiro.

There were some misses, too, including an orange wine—a Loire chenin blanc from Sébastien Fleuret—that tasted of vinegar and soy sauce poured over sweet peaches. It went remarkably well with a pork bun, but that might be its only true friend in life. And at one stop we couldn’t find a first-, second- or even third-cheapest wine that we wanted to drink and ended up with something pricier. One of the best wines all night was Bussoletti’s 2013 Brecciaro ciliegiolo, a happy, juicy wine that was, in fact, the cheapest glass pour on Gramercy Tavern’s list.

At the end of the evening—over a beer, naturally—what most stood out about these wines was that not once did we have what one might call a “mainstream” wine; no pinot grigio, no sauvignon blanc—and, save for the riesling, no domestic wines.

It’s no wonder. Every sommelier will tell you that their real goal is to find overall balance with a list from several vantage points: price, style, familiarity. But with the ever-increasing price for the well-known wines, the best place to find value—both for the restaurant and the guest—is in the esoterica.

“I’m not going to put an obscure varietal on my by-the-glass list at $20,” says Juliette Pope, of Gramercy Tavern. “I’ll put a Burgundy on there at $20. If I’m going to put on something strange or out of left field, like a Diego white from the Canary Islands, people will take a chance on it if it costs less.”

At this point, the SWCP, under the best circumstances, will steer drinkers to the sorts of wines the sommelier hopes you’ll try. Ideally, they represent the wines that take the most effort to find on the market—wines that actually communicate a place, a grape, a point of view. Whereas it’s relatively easy to find classically sought-after wines that diners are happy to pay good money for—Barolos, Burgundies, older Riojas—there’s a hunt involved in the other side of the price scale.

At Formento’s in Chicago, wine director Steve Morgan is dodging the bottom-of-the-barrel notion altogether by calling out 50 wines on his list (from his 500-bottle selection) that cost less than $50. They get two whole pages, giving them top billing rather than looking like the dregs. Morgan thinks that diners will perceive a list to be wickedly expensive simply by the presence of one or two very expensive wines. “When you’re looking at a big list,” he says, “and you see something on a page for $2,200, that’s the only thing you’ll see.”

When Morgan’s eating out, the lower-priced bottles are his way of gauging the mindset of the sommelier. “If there’s something interesting at that price point, you can feel they’ve made a selection,” says Morgan. “Say it’s something from the Savoie or a lesser known Italian varietal—there’s a statement being made there. Those lower-priced wines can show you where a sommelier’s heart is. If there’s a wine at $30 or $40, that $40 wine has to represent the list.”

This has not always been the case. Many wine lists—especially when it comes to by-the-glass options—have historically conceded to easy sells. If everyone who comes in wants a pinot grigio or a chardonnay or a cab, why not just give them the cheapest version of that, at a premium? Thankfully, this model has shifted in the past five or so years. “What’s changed the plight of the second-cheapest wines is the aspiring sommelier,” says Andy Myers, wine director for ThinkFoodGroup, José Andrés’ restaurant family. “Even the most casual restaurant is taking their wine list seriously these days.”

While it’s true that there are more thoughtful wine lists from top to bottom than there were ten years ago, it’s not true everywhere. There are indeed still plenty of restaurants where the least expensive bottles exist as a feeble effort to throw customers a bone, rather than give them something great.

Such bone-throwing is easiest to detect in what might be described as a hollow list. “What I’m really interested in is how quickly a list jumps you our of your comfort zone,” says David Lynch, longtime sommelier, in reference to wine lists that might offer a slew of bottles that cost $100 or more and maybe only two at the $50 level, say. In addition to showing very little imagination on the part of the sommelier, a wine list with a gaping hole between high-priced wines and inexpensive ones gives diners very little option.

Having been in the industry for more than 20 years, Lynch looks to the less costly bottles to evaluate the pricing and philosophy of the list as a whole. “I know what restaurants’ costs are and can get a sense of their markups by looking at the less expensive wines,” he says. “It’s somewhat easy to tell how much thought went into the cheaper selections.”

So yes, even at places with lauded lists, not all wines that fall under the purview of the Second-Cheapest Wine Principle are thoughtful. But the SCWP does indeed reward drinkers when in the presence of a persevering sommelier who is down for digging deep into obscure varieties and up-and-coming regions or simply getting diners used to hearing the sound of a screwcap in the dining room, rather than the creak of a pull-tab.