Tipping On Wine Service

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - April 23, 2008
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Like a recurring dream that pops into my otherwise peaceful slumber, the same question finds its way into my e-mail about, oh, a dozen times a month: “Can you please settle an argument - do you tip on wine?”

“Yes,” I always reply, adding a few notes about why I think overworked waiters and under-paid sommeliers should be rewarded for their efforts. It’s quite obvious that the answer most people would prefer is, “Good grief! No! Don’t ever tip on a bottle of wine. Why would you tip someone to pull out a cork or unscrew a cap. Are you crazy?”

Blame Marvin Shanken, if you like. The editor, publisher and chairman of Wine Spectator magazine proudly announced two years ago that he’d tipped $150 on a tab of $1,500 - $1,200 of the check was for wine. Shanken’s rationale was that he tipped $60 for the food and 7.5 percent for the wine. The wine world was up in arms, and letters of outrage (and even some of support) to Wine Spectator were unprecedented. Shanken maintains he only did it to inspire debate, and certainly that worked, because the debate is still ongoing.

I took the question to some of the wine drinkers I respect most and got a number of different views.

“I have always left a tip based on the entire check, as the tip, I believe, is for the total experience,” says the vice president of one of the largest wine and spirits distributors in the state. “Would anyone tip less because they ordered a lobster - the most expensive dish on the menu - or leave more of a tip when they order chicken? I think not!”

Bartender to the suave and sophisticated (well, at the least to people who like great steaks and fine wine) Brian Blair agrees.

“I don’t get the idea that people don’t tip on wine,” says the Ruth’s Chris Steak House head bartender. “Wine comes with service - people need the right glasses and someone to pay attention to their needs.”

And they also need someone who knows the difference between a delicate pour and a pint of beer. I once watched, incredulous, as a waitress (at a steak house no longer with us) poured our entire bottle of wine into two glasses. I had to lean across the table and slurp for fear of lifting my glass and spilling its copious contents.

A prominent businessman, who is a frequent diner at fine restaurants and a considerable wine enthusiast, agrees that tipping should reflect attention to detail and to service.

“My strong belief is that you tip a customary 15-20 percent on the entire bill,” he says. “If you can afford a pricey bottle, then you can afford the related tip for service.”

And that seems to be a consensus. If you can afford the wine, then surely you can afford the tip.

A reader with whom I have an occasional e-mail correspondence says his personal philosophy is to keep his restaurant bottle purchases to around the $100 mark and tip 20 percent. “I might bump up the bottle price in an upscale restaurant. If we’re at La Mer, for example, and (sommeliers) Randy or Kevin help with the wine choices, I maintain the 20 percent regardless of the price of the bottle,” he writes.

And in all my conversations with wine connoisseurs, I could-n’t find a single person who thought that Marvin Shanken’s 7.5 percent tip was anything other than discourteous.

“Too many people over-simplify the effort and attention a wait-person gives to serving wine,” says the frequent diner. “Wine service might include decanting, assisting with the determination of the drinkability of the wine and of changing the glassware with each new bottle.”

To me, tipping only begs further discussion when wine prices soar into the stratosphere. Still, I’m convinced the question will keep on coming. My answer, though, will stay the same. As long as the service is good, tip on the wine.

Or have a martini.

Now to the question of BYOB ...

Happy eating!

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