Tipping on Wine at a Restaurant

When a recent restaurant visit ended up with The $169 Wine Ordering Mistake, it made me ponder things as I went to do the tip. The meal should have cost about $200, including an $80 bottle of wine. I would have been quite fine tipping $40 as a result. I tend to tip 20% - and this waiter was wonderful. He deserved the 20%. He didn't provide any "help" with the wine - I knew what I wanted and ordered it - but still, he was a great waiter.

Now what actually happened is that, due to a wine mix-up, our total bill was $400. Does this mean I now tip the waiter $80? I double his tip due to a mistake? Most of us would say no. I gave him the original tip, which was a good tip, but I did not "reward him" for this mistake I was already paying for.

To take this a step further, what if I had ordered the $240 bottle of wine deliberately? I would have chosen it myself, just as with the $80 one. The "service" was no different. The bottle was presented, opened and poured. Would it be worth an extra $40 because the liquid he was handling was a more expensive liquid?

Eric, a waiter at a restaurant in Laguna Beach, California, offers this thought:

"If you order a bottle between 100 and 200 dollars, tip the server on the wine money price as well as the food. We have bottles that are $15,000 or more. If one was to buy that bottle, I would not expect to get tipped out on that price. One should tip out as if it were a $500 bottle at least though. If I point you in the right direction on that big of an investment, I believe that I have helped you tremendously in investing in a great night. Have you ever decanted a bottle from 1937? That cork is hard to get out and the sediment is hard to keep from tainting the wine. It is a skill that not too many posses. If one does not want to tip on big wine, then bring your own bottle (that you will get at a better price) and just pay for the corkage. This is the best way to avoid tipping on a high priced bottle of wine. Beware of bringing that bottle to your local Italian place. They will ruin a nice bottle of wine if it is not decanted correctly. "

I agree completely that any extra work involving pulling ancient cork bottles out of the bottle or very carefully pouring the wine so that the sediment does not get mixed in with the wine itself is worthy of being paid for. I have had a bottle of port that was really bad, because it was served with the sediment all sloshed up in it. It was like drinking muck-filled water, with every mouthful a sediment-filled mixture. I had that same year of port a different time, when it was very carefully handled and all the sediment was down at the base of the bottle so the liquid itself was clear. It was SO much better tasting.

Which, to go off on a tangent, brings up a story of when I had dinner in Ukraine. The waiter brought out an older bottle of red wine which had sediment. He set the bottle up in a cradle with a crank, so that the bottle was gently tilted on its side. The idea was that the wine liquid would pour out, the sediment would gently slide at the bottom of the bottle and not come out with the wine. There was even a candle at the bottle neck so that the waiter could see where the sediment sludge was and not pour it out with the wine. The waiter went through this whole process - very slowly - for five minutes to carefully separate the wine from the sludge. Then when he was done, he picked up the bottle (with the sludge) and poured out the remaining sludge-liquid into the decanter, so that we could enjoy every drop! He mixed the sludge right back in with the clear wine. He got an A for effort but a D for actual results.

So in any case what I was getting at is if you bring in your own bottle to any restaurant, decanting is going to be a moot point. You would have sloshed up any sediment during the driving process, and the chance of that settling out in just an hour or two - or with any decanting - is going to be slim to none. Decanting helps with a bottle that was *stationary* before, so that all the sludge was along the bottom of the bottle. If you're driving around with the bottle, all that sludge is mixed right in with the wine and it'll take many hours (if not days) to get it back separated again.

As far as it being cheaper to bring an expensive bottle from home - let's look at the Morton's example. The Ridge Monte Bello was $249 on their list, and cost $180. So a $69 markup. Let's say corkage would have been $20. So I paid an extra $49 over buying the bottle myself a few years ago and bringing it in. For that $49, they stored the bottle properly without any heat or humidity issues for multiple years. Then they brought the bottle up carefully from their cellar, so the wine was actually drinkable, vs if I had tried to carry it delicately from my house on foot. Also, let's say three years ago I invested $250 at a 8% return. By now I've already earned that $49 in interest. So I had access to the money the whole time, I didn't have to worry about storing or caring for the wine, and POOF it was there waiting for me, perfect, when I got to the restaurant. So really it saves me money to keep my money in my investments, let it earn interest and then 'trade it in' for a well stored, well served bottle of wine at my meal.

So to summarize, I think it's worth it - for an expensive wine - to buy it at the restaurant and let them properly handle it and serve it. This assumes of course that they DO properly handle it and serve it :) I also think I should tip based on what is being done. If someone very carefully gets an ancient cork out of a $500 bottle of port and takes 10 minutes to decant it perfectly, I'm certainly going to tip for that fully. The waiter just made the difference between a deliciously drinkable wine and a wine that tastes awful. But if all he does for a $500 bottle of Cabernet is pour it into my glass, I am going to tip him on say a $200 bottle of wine's cost, because the extra $300 did not cause any difference in his actions at all.

Barry offers a different point of view -

"About the tip; itís also the same amount of work to bring out a hamburger or a steak so; tip is based on total bill with extra for a really nice job."

My thought here is that, well yes, and usually the price range from burger to steak is $10 or $30. Iím not quibbling about buying a $20 bottle of wine or an $80 bottle of wine. As I mentioned, I would tip fully on an $80 bottle of wine. But there has to be some reason in there at some point 0 if I buy a $1,000 bottle of wine, the waiter gets $200 bonus for carrying that bottle to the table? Would you really tip an extra $200 because of the contents of the bottle? With a steak, the cook is doing a lot more work with it. With a bottle, the winery did all the work and was already paid for it. To me it is not an appropriate reward. A tip is supposed to be based on the waiter's service and activities, not on a fully unrelated intangible. At that point the tip stops being service based and is now prestige based.

Dee is far more giving than I am - she would have tipped on the full amount of the higher priced bottle -

"If the waiter gave you the wrong bottle of wine part of the error was his as well and I might have given him the benefit of the doubt and tipped him what I would have if I ordered it. Then again I might have thought he was thinking that this customer doesnít know wine and I can get away with this, and since I had not checked I would have only given him half of the BIG tip. Hard to tell unless his actions gave him away. We always tip a percentage of the total bill. If the waiter/ess was exceptional of course they receive a larger percent!"

I just can't see giving the waiter 20% of a $250 bottle of wine's price - so $50 "bonus" - when I didn't order it. It feels morally wrong to me :) I did tip him on the bottle I paid for - and he didn't do any extra work beyond that - plus he got a half a glass to drink ...

Ryan is straightforward and does what I normally do, until the wine gets to be about $80 or so :)

"I usually go for the straight 20% tip, figuring that tips are how most servers make their living anyway. The fact that they have educated themselves to get to the level of serving at higher end restaurants should get them the benefit of increased tip potential."

I agree completely that I would fail at being a waiter. I would be an awful waiter. I am more than happy to reward waiters for being good waiters, and to pay them 20%. The question comes into play when wine prices go above a certain point. If I am paying a waiter for good service, is it really "that much better" service if they pour out a $50 bottle of wine vs a $500 bottle of wine? Did they do an extra $100 worth of service by their actions, if the contents of the bottle is older? If the service does NOT change at all why am I rewarding based on something other than skill and service? Every one of us only has limited funds. I could donate that money to Kiva, or the Heifer, instead of just giving 20% to a waiter for doing the same job I would have given a $20 tip for ... I am all for rewarding effort with money. But I am not for paying 8 times the cost of effort because of completely unrelated circumstances. So that is where I start to draw the line.

Rick is more frugal than I tend to be -

"Regarding tipping. I start with 20% on the food bill. I tip on the wine based on the service. For example, if the bottle is left on the table and I have to pour it myself, no additional tip. If the waiter is attentive I add a little more, if the waiter engages in some intelligent wine conversation, I add a little more and if the waiter recommends a good bottle I usually tip on the whole thing. In BYOB I always provide a glass for the waiter/chef/owner (I bring several bottles). If they waive the corkage, the tip is increased by half the corkage fee."

Interesting so you wouldn't tip at all on the wine if you had to pour it yourself? I've never thought of that, I always tip on wine. But that's a good point - if the waiter doesn't do anything at all for the wine (besides I suppose opening it) then you should non-reward them appropriately ...

I never really trust a waiterís recommendation - I always figure they have an agenda - so I guess I donít reward them for prompting me to buy certain bottles :)

David seems to have a great compromise -

"Tipping when wine is included in the price. My rule is to tip 10% on the bottled wine purchase and between 15% and 20% depending on the service. I also carefully check to NOT tip on the sales tax. If we are just having wine by the glass with or without a meal I tip on the total bill, not like with a bottle."

This would mean he's tipping a bit less than me normally - but also that he's set up to tip what I would consider "properly" for bottles that are say $60 and over (which for me seems to be some sort of a metal price point change). I will definitely have to consider this.

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All content on the WineIntro website is personally written by author and wine enthusiast Lisa Shea. WineIntro explores the delicious variety and beautiful history which makes up our world of wine! Lisa loves supporting local wineries and encouraging people to drink whatever they like. We all have different taste buds, and that makes our world wonderful. Always drink responsibly.