There's an old saying that warns you never to order the cheapest bottle on a restaurant's wine list. These days, though, wine directors know they're being judged on whatever you end up ordering. So we were curious: how do they choose the cheapest bottle on the list? Is it a personal favorite or a bottle designed to please the masses?
We asked a group of top sommeliers from around the country to tell us about their wine lists' cheapest bottle, and whether they think it's a good one to order. Here's what they had to say.
The Picking Process
"The cheapest wine on any list I've ever worked with gets way more consideration than most guests probably think. Although some places might toss on whatever juice they get at the deepest discount, we work hard to find great options. You're going to sell a lot of them, so why put on something you don't like?"—Chad Walsh (The Dutch)
"A year or two ago I was in a blind tasting with some other sommeliers and this bottle ended up being the highlight that day. Everyone thought it was either Chablis Premier Cru or some very noteworthy wine, but it was actually Valdesil Montonovo Godello. Nobody could place it, but it drinks well beyond its price range and I've been working with it ever since. I feel that in general the standard of quality you place on your least expensive wine sets the bar for the rest of the list."—Daniel Beedle (Juni)
"Last fall, bar manager and wine buyer, Dori Prange of Tasty n Sons and I collaborated on a list where all of the wines are $29 per bottle. It's a challenging list to create—to keep everything at cost and have something for everyone (including awesome local Pinot Noir, which of course so many people want here in Oregon.) If I had to pick a favorite wine from that list, I would choose the 2012 Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko-Athiri from Santorini—Dori drank this wine on her honeymoon in Greece. It has such minerality and salty characteristics that really pair well with much of the menu."—Mindy Cook (Toro Bravo, Tasty n Alder, Tasty n Sons, M.E.C.)
"Right now the cheapest wine on our list is the Avinyo Vi d'Agulla Pétillant from Penedes in Spain. Last spring it was the perfect unique affordable day-sipping wine for our by the glass program, and guests went crazy for it. At 10.5% alcohol with notes of salted grapefruit, it's something you could drink all afternoon. Once it was time to retire it by the glass, I couldn't stand the thought of saying goodbye so I kept it on our bottle list. It might not be a wine to age in your cellar, but it delivers endless pleasure and is a fantastic value."—Jess Hereth (Olympic Provisions)
Lesser-Known Wines and Hidden Gems
"What better way to get adventurous with your selection and try something offbeat?"
"The least expensive bottles are often great values, and should never be looked down on. What better way to get adventurous with your selection and try something offbeat? It's low commitment, and possibly a new favorite you never would have tried with a higher price tag.The least expensive wine on our list is a $44 bottle of Muller Thurgau from Trentino Alto-Adige, in northern Italy. The lower priced wines on our list are often introductory wines from producers we love, or regions that we try to support."—Erika DaSilva (Joseph Leonard and Jeffrey's Grocery)
"The least expensive wine on our list comes from the most unlikely of all regions—Burgundy! Why? Typically, Burgundy is the place to go to for the most expensive wines. This bottle, though, is Didier Montchovet's Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire 2011 for $40. This is actually made with the other red grape of Burgundy—Gamay. Even compared to Beaujolais, another Gamay-focused wine region, this wine delivers great value. It is a fresh, vibrant example of what Burgundy is capable of producing. It is a red that you can drink all throughout the meal—light enough for fish, but also with enough texture & flavor for some of the more savory meat courses."—Caleb Ganzer (Eleven Madison Park)
"The cheapest wines on my list are the 2012 Marc Olivier Clos de Briords Muscadet or the 2013 Corbieres Rosé Domaine Fontsainte. I selected them because they are delicious—Muscadet is really one of my favorite wines in the world. These are 120 year-old vines, touched by the sea, salty brine-sharp. I think it far outsteps its economic shoes. The rosé is much more simple juice—it's kind of like the early Beatles tunes—if someone objected, you'd really have to point then to those bowl haircuts and say 'Come on, we're just here for fun.'"—Jonathan Waters (Chez Panisse)
"The cheapest wine on our list at Clio is 2012 Pedro Ximenez Mayu from the Elqui Valley in Chile ($35 on our list). This wine certainly falls in the more esoteric side of things. Pedro Ximenez is known for its use in sherry, but here it is vinified bone dry and from Chile of all places. Beautiful floral, fruit, acid and mineral balance. This wine is so easy to like and hardly makes a dent in your wallet."—Jonathan Fenelon (Clio)
"The least expensive wines on our list at North End Grill are Château du Coing Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, L'Ancestrale 2007 and Domaine des Braves Regnié 2012 (both $38). I would drink both of them in a heartbeat (and have). The Regnié is a spunky, jubilant bundle of fruits and herbs that drinks perfectly well by itself, but will pair nicely with all but the most savory or heavy of dishes, and the Muscadet is uniquely serious, structured, and ageworthy; at this point it has this marvelous, aged-cheddar-rind cheesiness that's lifted by lemony acidity. There are still a handful of regions out there that are relatively undiscovered so the price hasn't been inflated by market and demand, and these two hidden gems are examples of that."—Mia Van De Water (North End Grill)
The Value Question
"'Value' is a funny thing, I've found. To me, value means you're getting something great for your money, regardless if you're spending $30 or $90. Does the wine drink above its price? That's value to me. One of the least expensive wines on our list is the 2012 Sottimano Maté, a dry brachetto, made by one of my favorite Barbaresco producers. It's on the list for $31. It almost drinks like the Frappato of the north (of Italy, that is), and I love that it's unbelievably perfumey and beautiful on the nose, but dry and snappy on the palate. I chose it because of the rarity of brachetto made in this style, and I strive for a list that supports natural producers, like Sottimano. I also love a wine that's in the $30 price range, something to pair with salty salumi and formaggi, and it allows the guest to move onto another wine without a tired palate or a tired wallet. "—Dana Frank (Ava Gene's and Bow & Arrow)
"We work in the wine industry, not banking, so we know what it's like to have a limited budget and we take our least expensive selections sometimes even more seriously than other wines at higher prices. At Boxing Room, our least expensive bottle is Ricard Rose 'Le P'tit Rosé' Touraine Loire, France 2012 ($20). This blend of Gamay Noir and Cabernet Franc has the best qualities of each with herbal toned red fruit. At Absinthe, we pour Ostatu Rioja Blanco Spain 2012 for $30. This blend of Viura and Malvasia is one of my favorite value wine standbys. It has aromas of fresh citrus and minerals with lush fruit on the palate with a strong, crisp backbone."—Ian Becker (Absinthe Group)
"A good sommelier realizes that his/her name is on every bottle on their list. So the least expensive wine on a well-curated list is often a very exciting bottle. I want to make sure that everyone who orders a beverage at my restaurants loves it. These days I get much more excited when I find a great affordable wine then I do when I find another really good expensive one. Currently at Frances the least expensive bottle is a 2006 Riesling from Austria, the producer is Leth and it sells for $38. I have been a big fan of Austrian wines since I first became a sommelier because you can find fresh, clean, perfect wines for good prices. The bonus here: bottle age! I have also always been a big fan of having wines on my lists that are ready to drink as opposed to wines that really would taste better in a few years; we are opening these wines for dinner tonight, not in a few years!"—Paul Einbund (Frances and Seam Wines)
"Just because it's cheap doesn't mean it's bad. Slightly less complicated than some of our other wines? Maybe. Right now my favorite least expensive selection is at RPM Italian, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo from a producer called Agriverde. It was selected because I found it to be true to its place in Italy. This particular wine is an unoaked expression made from organic fruit."—Ryan Arnold (Lettuce Entertain You)