Tipping for Wine
by Kit Menkin
One of the questions I am asked about wine is what to leave for a tip when the dinner includes an expensive bottle of wine. This is not fully answered by the Wine Spectator, the Chaine des Rotisseuers, Order of Mondial, and various top restaurants also skirt a direct response. Most people include the cost of the wine along with the price of the dinner, including the sales tax.
With a good bottle of wine starting at $50 and more at quality restaurants, or even a lot more at “fine” restaurants, often it appears you are being penalized for ordering a comparable wine to marry your entrees.
Often when you have a party of eight or more, a gratuity is automatically added at 17% to 18% of the total dinner bill. At a wedding rehearsal dinner in Houston for Sue's daughter, I ordered the wine for a party of 18 at this Italian restaurant (the food and service was outstanding. ) When I got the dinner bill, I had words first with the waiter and then the manger of the restaurant as I thought 20% automatic gratuity was too high. The discussion was not at the table, I made sure it was out of ear shot of the guests, and the manger was the one who decanted both the large bottles of wine.)
We had white wine before the main course. When I saw on the list an Imperial bottle of an '85 Barolo reserve, I ordered it for the main entrees. I thought it was a great price for the wine and could not pass it up. In fact, the party liked it so much, I ordered a second, which turned out to be a later vintage, 1988, as I had ordered the only 1985 they had. It was not as good, but only by degrees. It was still a memorable wine. Of course, we had dessert wine with the wonderful Italian desserts. And to sum it up, it was a wonderful evening until they presented me with the bill.
All the wine for the dinner was over three times the cost of the food. I reacted to the automatically adding 20% to the cost of the wine ( which also included the sales tax) to the tab.
As a rule of thumb, according to the Wine Spectator, you should never pay less than 15% gratuity for everything.
If the service is poor, the minimum is 10%. They recommend 20% for a good meal, including the wine, despite the price of the wine. They assume someone is going to buy a $25 or $30 bottle of wine. Or perhaps bring their own wine to the restaurant and pay corkage ( which they highly recommend.)
The Chaine des Rôtisseurs have a similar policy, except they encourage a 25% for excellent service, despite the cost of the wine. If you are having a top dinner and top wine, you are expected to pay for the top service as you are a member of the Chaine, and to act accordingly.
It is also recommended that you give the Wine Stewart of Sommelier a tip, as well as the Captain, if he gives you service beyond, such as at Le Bernadin in New York City, where it appears the captain is very active at his group of tables.
You actually write on the receipt the tip, and who it goes to. 10% for the Sommelier if he is active recommending the restaurant, as well as at least 5% to 10% for the captain.
Now this is what the late famous bon vivant and chef extraordinaire Charles Beard said, many years ago, and I basically follow it: 20% of the cost of the food is the minimum tip to the waiters ( exclude sales tax—also easier to do the math) 10% of the wine cost ( exclude sales tax) and mark this for the sommelier, and if not, mark wine steward, still 10%. 5% for the captain, if he is of help, otherwise not.
If you bring your own wine, although there is corkage, let your conscious be your guide. If no corkage is charged, you should raise your tip. As a rule of thumb, I rarely, if ever, will bring a bottle from my cellar to a restaurant. I think it is poor manners to do so. I go out and listen to the waiter or wine steward about what goes best with their food. I don't need to show off what wine I have. I also would like to see the restaurant stay in business.
Now a wedding or a special dinner or event when we are all getting what they serve, and there never is a tip, I always bring a couple of magnums to share with the entire table. I choose my seat, when I first enter, and put the wine under it. I can tell you those who have been with me at such events, always come over to see what I am having---with an empty glass in their hand.
Oh, yes, who won at the wedding rehearsal dinner. They did. It was their written policy 20% gratuity on large parties; they also had to have special help in decanting the large bottles, and our discussion was getting so long and I could see people at our table looking at me, so I gave in. I was on the verge of ruining the evening for them. I think they knew I was from California, would never see me again, and if I had the money to buy two large bottles of wine, I had the money to pay the full 20% on everything.
The wedding was great, and the party at the rehearsal dinner talked a lot about the dinner and the “fabulous” wine.
I guess it goes back to that old adage, “If you really liked the wine, you never paid too much for it.”
Coda: If you want to know if you got a value for your wine, or what the wine price is today, go to www.winezap.com Type in the vintage (year) and name of the producer with wine type or geographic area, such as 1995 Chateau Lynch Bages Pauillac .
Even 1995 Lynch Bages will work, or 1999 Viader