Restaurant Experiences With At-Home Prices Volume I: Permission to Eat & Drink Better

July 30, 2020

By Karina Roe  •  Read time: 5 minutes

There’s a certain commitment that takes place when you decide to set foot inside a restaurant. You’ve decided to go out instead of staying in for your meal, because you’ve decided that you want that special experience that going to a restaurant promises. Someone has agreed to cook delicious food and pour amazing wine for you, do all the dishes, and make you feel special and well cared-for. You, in turn, have agreed to pay (sometimes quite handsomely) for all that to happen.

I love going out. I love the “specialness” of my experience. I love that when I get to my favorite wine bar, I’m going to come in contact with someone whose job is literally to make sure I enjoy myself. And when I’m seeking after that sort of experience, an interesting psychological shift happens: I don’t tend to think about price in quite the same way that I do when I buy wine to consume at home. When I see my favorite bubbles on the wine list for $25 a glass, I don’t think twice. I may even order two glasses, even though I know it’s not in the best interest of my bank account. The wine is served at the perfect temperature, in the perfect glass, and prior to being in that glass it had been stored correctly. I savor that glass to the last drop, and I assign a lot of value to my experience with it. Those 5 ounces of pure bliss were worth my $25 to the very last drop, because I decided it was worth it.

The next day, I stop by my wine shop because I haven’t yet had my fill of bubbles (ultimately impossible, if you ask me). I scan the shelves with a miserly eye and end up grabbing a bottle of $17 cava. I know I won’t have nearly the same experience with this bottle that I had with my $25 glass, but I’ll be “satisfied enough.” The value has become monetary instead of experiential.

This moment illustrates a curious discontinuity in how we experience wine. Why is it that we are nearly always ready to pay significantly more for wine in a restaurant, and rarely willing to pay even a few dollars more at a retail store? Could it be that we don’t allow ourselves the same kind of pleasure that drinking at a restaurant gives, in our own homes? Of course, there are special occasions where we are willing to shell out significantly more money for wines purchased to drink at home. But by and large, there’s a sizeable discrepancy in what we’re willing to spend at restaurants versus retail shops.

We know that wines on a restaurant list are always more expensive than what you’ll find them for on retail shelves. However, that doesn’t stop us from buying them; remember, you’re committed to having a certain experience when you step into that restaurant, so you’re also committed to the financial cost that experience comes with. Sometimes when you seek after that same wine in a retail store, you’re shocked to find that it’s half the price you paid.

Here’s some breaking news, and the real point of this piece: you can have a restaurant wine experience for an at-home price.

It requires a couple things from you, the thoughtful wine drinker, but it’s completely possible to drink as well (and better) as you do at a restaurant:

  • Bring the “specialness” home. You took a picture of that bottle at the restaurant for a reason. There’s a great memory attached to it, because you probably drank it with people you really like, and in a comfortable environment that allowed you to sink into the full experience of the wine. There’s nothing that says you can’t transport the singularity of the “restaurant moment” into the comfort of your home and the everydayness of life. The first thing you have to do is simply give yourself permission to bring the specialness home. Serve it at a proper temperature and in proper glassware. Treat your wine with the same sort of care and respect that an excellent server does in a restaurant.

What about the notion that there are some wines that only restaurants get access to, and not retail stores? By and large, this is a myth: even though a good restaurant might be blessed with a cellar they’ve been cultivating for decades, any good wine shop with a well-educated and passionate staff will get their hands on the same sort of bottles that are so lauded at restaurants.

  • Commit to a $30-40 price point. For a lot of consumers, $20 is a pretty standard average for a bottle of wine. At this price point you can expect the wine to be well-made, but to taste pretty simple and straightforward. Once you hit that $30-40 range, you’re much more likely to get the complexity, balance, and je ne sais quoi we all crave in a memorable bottle of wine. The deep care and thoughtfulness in winemaking choices begins to show itself in tangible ways. It’s difficult to replicate that attention to detail on lower-priced bottles. And when you consider that you’ll easily pay $60-80 at a restaurant for the same $30 bottle of wine at a retail store, it makes that “specialness” a lot more attainable.

  • Do your homework (or have someone do it for you). So much of the magic of a great wine moment comes from knowing who and where your bottle came from. A great sommelier or wine steward takes a lot of care to pair your food with a perfect wine, and likely they’ll give you some background on the wine to elevate your experience with it. Similarly, a knowledgeable wine specialist will help build the story around your wine and give context to what makes it unique. Putting five minutes into learning about your wine will immediately deepen your connection with it, and it’ll be that much more enjoyable as you pour it into your glass.

Give yourself permission to drink excellent wine more often. Recognize what your dollars will get you. Learn about the people and places behind your wine, and the details of what’s gone into the making of your wine so that it could give you that special-occasion restaurant experience—no matter where you drink it. The current state of fine dining affairs is a perilous one, and the future is anything but clear as to when (if ever) we’ll be able to get back to enjoying “normal” restaurant experiences. Don’t give up the celebration of excellent food and wine, because these things are catalysts for connection with each other. Make the extra effort with your food, bring home the good wine, and create intentional, thoughtful experiences for yourself and your people.

CLAUDE RIFFAULT ‘LES BOUCAUDS’ SANCERRE | $34.99 

We all know ‘Sancerre’ is the not-so-secret code word for “world-class Sauvignon Blanc,” but this small family-owned estate takes things to another level. Unlike most Sancerre producers, current owner Stéphane hand-picks 100% of his certified biodynamic fruit and sorts the grapes extensively before crush. He ferments and ages his wine in both stainless steel and old oak to add a bit of texture and complexity. A bottle of Riffault Sancerre brings forth a heightened level of all the characteristics we’ve come to love in Sancerre: fresh minerality, crisp acidity, and precise, perfectly ripe fruit.

FAILLA SONOMA COAST PINOT NOIR | $39.99 

Ehren Jordan has been at the forefront of cool-climate Pinot Noir production in California for almost two decades. He’s first and foremost a farmer instead of a winemaker, and prefers to spend more time on his tractor than in the cellar. This preference shows in the pristine quality of the grapes he grows, and subsequently in the impeccable balance that is so elusive in Pinot Noir. His Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is a benchmark wine of vintage, variety, and place, and showcases the distinctive soils, fog, and ocean influence that only the wild Sonoma Coast can provide.

VOIRIN-JUMEL ‘TRADITION’ BRUT CHAMPAGNE | $34.99 

In terms of Champagne, this small négociant bottling is an incredible value with its modest price point and high-class vineyard sources. But in terms of the larger category of sparkling wine, this is where you begin tasting the real difference in winemaking technique and quality fruit. These two historic families came together after World War II to pool their resources and create world-class bubbly from several parcels in 11 different villages, and today the house is still run by the younger generations. A blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir, this classically-styled Champagne is accessible to the palate but has no shortage of character.