The second-cheapest wine dilemma: "Choose a wine you can't pronounce!"

Photo by Benjamin DeYoung/Unsplash
Felicity Carter
Published 30-March-2023

A decade ago, a comedy sketch launched the idea that you should always buy the second-cheapest wine. What do sommeliers think of that advice?

Back in 2012, a short comedy video called Second Cheapest Wine went viral. Created by CollegeHumor, it begins with a man telling the sommelier he wants the “second cheapest wine”. The sommelier nods in approval.

Buying the second cheapest wine, the narrator explains, stops you from looking like a complete cheapskate, which is what you’d look like if you picked the actual cheapest wine.

The sketch touched a nerve, racking up hundreds of thousands of views. It also turned out to be lampooning a real phenomenon. In 2018, the publication Gastro Obscura surveyed its readers and discovered that 53% of them chose the second cheapest wine on the menu.

So what do the sommeliers think of this advice?

Arvid Rosengren/Photo courtesy of Arvid Rosengren

Better advice on how to choose wine

Arvid Rosengren, the ASI Best Sommelier of the World 2016, is willing to consider that there might be times the advice could work.

“It’s not going to work in a wine-centric place where they are about their wines — whether it’s a shop, restaurant, or bar — but it might just work in some chain restaurant.”

In commercial chains, he said, the wine buyers work according to formulas and are likely to add a big markup to the house wine, making the second (or third) cheapest wines comparatively good value. But, adds Arvid, he always stays away from such places, because he wants to drink good wine and they’re unlikely to have it.

The best way to navigate the wine list in a wine-focused place, he says, is simply to ask the sommelier. “They’re usually passionate about the things they put together, so they will give you good advice,” he says. “The best thing you can do is be totally honest and say, ‘hey, I’ve got €50 to spend on wine, and that’s it’.”

And if you’re in a restaurant or bar that values its wine, the house wine can also be an excellent choice.

Ronan Sayburn MS/Photo courtesy of Ronan Sayburn

Ronan Sayburn MS says that when he worked for the Gordon Ramsay Group, “we had a really great house wine. And for me, that was really important, because the house wine was a representation of our house, so it had to be exceptionally good quality and exceptionally good value for money.” He says that customers loved the wine, from Château Bauduc in Bordeaux and that he was proud to offer it.

But if you don’t have a sommelier on hand to advise, and you don’t like the look of the house wine, the sommeliers have another secret to share.

Jan Konetzki/Photo courtesy of Jan Konetzki

“I think you should always choose the wine with the longest name you can’t pronounce,” says sommelier Jan Konetzki, a judge of the Star Wine List of the Year Germany. “If you can’t pronounce it, you probably won’t order it — and it’s unlikely that other people will order it.”

Listing a wine that people are unlikely to order is a big financial risk, says Jan, so it will only be on the list if the person who chose it was totally in love with it. “And because it moves slower, it’s likely that it has a little bit more age, and it’s bought at a better price — and that will be better value.”

Arvid agrees and says it’s also worth looking for the unusual wine. “If someone bothered to put a Hungarian white in between their Chablis and their Sancerre, it’s probably there because someone really cared about it, and it’s probably better than the other two.”

But what about the second cheapest wine?

What if you actually like the look of the second-cheapest wine? According to some articles, the second cheapest wine is actually the worst wine to choose, because it has the highest markup; restaurateurs know that people will choose it, goes the reasoning, so it makes sense for them to make as much profit on it as possible.

Except it’s not true, says the American Association of Wine Economists. David de Meza and Vikram Pathania studied the wine menus of 235 London restaurants, comparing their prices to retail prices on

“It is an urban myth that the second-cheapest wine is an especially bad buy,” they wrote, adding that the markup on the second-cheapest wine is actually far below that of the next four more expensive wines.

By all means, buy the second cheapest wine — if you particularly like the look of it. Or call a waitperson over and point at the most unpronounceable wine on the list.

Or ask a sommelier. Which is always the best option.

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