When ordering a bottle of wine at a restaurant, how do you tip? It seems like a simple question, but judging by conversations I've had with friends inside and outside the wine business - and the many results you'll find if you do a Google search on the topic - diners are of at least three minds on this one and there's no clear guideline to be found. Well, there wasn't until I wrote the final sentence of this blog.
At one extreme you have the diner who cries, "But it's the same amount of work!" and carves away wine as a separate part of the check. Say you order two appetizers for $10 each, two entrees for $20 each, and a $80 bottle of wine for a total tab of $140 for your dinner. Some feel it's ridiculous to apply the same tip percentage to an entire check when a bottle of wine accounts for so much of the total, especially when it seems like the server deploys the same amount of effort to serve a $25 bottle as he would a $100 one...or just fill up water glasses. Waiters I surveyed - anonymously, of course - report seeing all kinds of math going on, from precise tippers leaving exactly 20% on food and 10% on wine, to the dollar-a-drink-at-the-bar tippers that leave a standard percentage on food with just a few extra dollars added for the wine. I find this reasoning questionable, and not only because I hate doing complicated math at the dinner table. Food prices vary as much as wine prices do from one restaurant to the next, and for better or worse we generally tip on prices rather than any other metric. Even when the servers' efforts seem of similar caliber when opening wines whose prices vary widely, it does require additional knowledge, service training, glassware, cellar capacity, and capital for a restaurant to serve higher priced wines, providing a rationale to tip accordingly.
In the middle you have the diner who only questions tipping his full percentage on the wine when ordering something REALLY expensive. Several sommeliers I spoke to who work in high end New York and Las Vegas restaurants say that they don't expect a guest to give a full 20% tip on bottles that reach into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars - though many do - and are quite happy with 10% tips in those situations. I can see why this would make sense, as the price of a bottle gets stratospheric, though I have never personally been at a table where a rap video-type of bottle was poured, let alone been the baller who financed it.
Finally, you have the diner who'll never give this a second thought and just tips his percentage on the total. It's all part of the meal, after all, and if you enjoyed the meal, you tip well. If it's so odious to tack on 15-25% to the price of your wine, you can always patronize restaurants that allow BYOB, or limit your wine splurges to dinners at home. My rule of thumb: If you can afford the wine, you can afford the tip.
"On the Bottle" is a column about wine and spirits appearing every Friday on the Martha Stewart Living Radio blog. Email your boozy questions and wine quandries to firstname.lastname@example.org and they'll be answered in a future post.