Why it’s smart to order the second-cheapest wine on the menu

Wine bottles are displayed outside a wine shop in Barolo, Italy, October 19, 2018.
Wine bottles are displayed outside a wine shop in Barolo, Italy, October 19, 2018.
Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini
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The second-cheapest wine on a restaurant menu occupies a complex place in the pop-culture pantheon. As skewered in a classic “College Humor” skit, it’s many people’s go-to order when “you don’t know much about wine, but you do know that you shouldn’t get the cheapest.” An informal poll by Gastro Obscura found that plenty of people really do think that way, with 53% of 304 readers saying that they’d chosen wine by that logic. “I do it so I look like I put some thought into the decision and avoid looking cheap,” one reader explained.

At the same time, conventional wisdom holds that because restaurants know that people don’t want to order the cheapest glass or bottle on the menu, the second-cheapest wine tends to have the highest markup. So while people may think they’re being both economical and plausibly classy by quaffing the second-cheapest Chardonnay, they’re actually getting stiffed for their naiveté, which is doubly embarrassing.

A new working paper (pdf) from the American Association of Wine Economists should put an end to the second-cheapest-wine shaming. Authors David de Meza and Vikram Pathania investigated whether there’s truth to the idea that the second-cheapest wine is a rip-off. Their ruling: “It is an urban myth that the second-cheapest wine is an especially bad buy.”

De Meza and Pathania came to this conclusion by perusing the wine menus of 235 London-based restaurants. They compared the prices on the menus to the cheapest available retail price on As it turns out, “the mark-up on the second cheapest wine is significantly below that on the four next more expensive wines,” they write.

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Mid-range wines are actually the ones with the highest markups by percentage. The authors aren’t quite sure why this is. But they suggest that restaurants may want to keep markups down on the cheap end (since wallet-conscious diners might otherwise not order wine at all) and at the higher end (since oenophiles might be encouraged to pay a little extra for a finer-quality bottle, but are more likely to be aware that they’re getting a bad deal).

So anyone who prefers to go with the second-cheapest wine (or the cheapest, for that matter) can do so guilt-free. As the authors write, it seems that “either the cheapest wine or top end wines are the best buys, in which case the appropriate maxim is, don’t get stuck in the middle!”