Wine Talk

Snooth User: ps

What is house wine? Would you drink it?

Posted by ps, Aug 22, 2012.

Sometimes you see the option of a house wine in a menu.  What exactly is a house wine?  Is the definition different around the world (cheap wine vs. local wine)?  Would you try the house wine?  Have you ever had a good one?  


Reply by Richard Foxall, Aug 22, 2012.

Excellent questions, IMO.  When I was a kid, my parents (who like wine but are a little less obsessed than I am and a lot more careful with a buck) would often order a carafe of the "house white," or "house red."  To some degree, this was a sign of unsophisticated Americans who called wines "burgundy" that contained little to no pinot noir, or drank things called "green Hungarian,," or "sauterne" that had nothing to do with botrytis or Bordeaux.  On the other hand, this was (and is, if my summer experience is any indication) a fairly European thing, in its way.  And it's also coming back into style, after a fashion, in hip places in the US.

First, what did my parents get in the day?  Who know,s but it probably had grenache or carignan grown in the hottest parts of California's Central Valley, or colombard if it was white.  Was it bad?  Not completely, but it wasn't fine wine.   Lots of wine wasn't that great, including some pretty well known stuff.  Wine has come a long way since then, mostly for the better.  (Although there might be less variety in California these days--but that's a different rant. Tearing up the grenache and planting cab and chardonnay wasn't always an improvement.)  And some of it was bad indeed, but who knew?

Was this just a California thing?  Probably not.  After all, if you went to the Rhone in the old days, you got Southern Rhone wine in the South and Northern Rhone wine in the North, and you took what you could get.  It might have come from a barrel and, once tapped, they had to keep it pouring because it was oxidizing.  Also, a rustic restaurant wouldn't want to carry inventory, even in bottles, same as they wouldn't want to store food for years, just keep the turnover high.  One wine of each color will get that job done. Of course, the food and wine developed alongside one another, so the pairings were natural or at least familiar.

Even on my trip to Europe this summer, lesser restaurants often had on the menu a wine by type--the Chianti is 14 Euros, the Barolo 24 at Spaghetteria L'Archetto, the Falanghina 13 if you want white--with no indication of the producers.  One of each kind.  Not exactly the House Red or House White, but really close.  Basically whatever the distributor had a deal on that wouldn't completely drive away the customers.  The Chianti was uninspired but competent, I skipped the Barolo (at that price, I worry), and the Falanghina was really good.  Same thing lots of places we went in Rome, and same thing in a bistro in France we had lunch at--there was a Pouilly-Fuisse with no name and a Cotes du Rhone, same deal--and neither was great but they weren't bad.

So, what's going on now?  Some restaurants will work with a producer they like and make a really good "House Wine" that they can sell at a slightly better price. They can make it exclusive, give you a chance to try famous maker's wine at a special price.  They will be happy to tell you what it is if allowed by the winery and will even crow about it a bit.  That's at your wine-centric restaurant.  Or it could be the wine they want to move a lot of that month because it's going slowly, or they got a good deal and can mark it up, or it's just marked up and they are pushing it.  In some cases, wineries and restaurants are going back to the wine on tap model. 

One huge advantage to "house wine by the carafe" is that you can get a 500 ml portion some places, or some other size that suits you well.

I would just ask the establishment what it is.  If it sounds good and the price is right, go for it.  If you think it's dodgy, say no.  And if it's in keg or available by the glass, ask for a taste.

Reply by Bordoo, Aug 22, 2012.

"Some restaurants will work with a producer they like and make a really good "House Wine" that they can sell at a slightly better price."

In my experience, this is relatively rare.  In fact, I don't believe I have ever come across it.  Macaroni grill is a chain which does this and brands the wine as Macaroni grill.

  Most restaurants that offer a house wine offer a commercially available wine, possibly, but not necessarily a "food service" only wine.  This would be a branded wine that is only offered at wholesale to restaurants, thus, not a wine you will see on a retailer's shelves.

House wines can be decent enough - or not.  Certainly I am of an age where I have seen "Burgundy" and "Chablis" as house offerings.  Usually a red and a white are offered and not entirely  infrequently a rose.  Italian restaurants may offer a house Chianti.  I frequent an establishment that offers Ruffino Chianti as the house, although served in a carafe and unidentified unless asked.  It's a drinkable wine.

House wines have their place.  I find that unless a wine is absolute swill, I can drink it and enjoy it.  I'm having a $10 plate of spaghetti, an $8 half carafe or $4 or $5 glass of something is all I want.  'Course if I am ordering the Osso Buco ...


I say "Drink up."

Reply by ps, Aug 23, 2012.

Thanks for the information FOXALL and BORDOO.  I wondered if house wine was non-denominational sort of like the term "table wine" - now I know it doesn't have to be.  A few months ago I asked what the "house wine" was in a restaurant and the waiter said "red".  I was a bit suspicious that he didn't specify but I took the risk.  I looked at him pour the wine behind the bar and though he tried to be subtle saw him pour something out of a box.  Believe it or not it wasn't as bad as I expected.  I have no idea what it was though!  

There is something appealing about a wine served in a half or full carafe with a casual meal with a group of friends - but I worry they are pushing their worst wine to the diners.

Reply by JonDerry, Aug 23, 2012.

All depends on the are, in Europe, or France especially many cafe's or restaurants take great pride in their house wines. I had a great house red in Nice last year, they even served it chilled, our recently met friends along with my wife and I were really impressed. Could've drank that stuff (it was probably sangiovese) all day. 

Reply by ps, Aug 23, 2012.

Jonderry, it is interesting that you say that some restaurants and cafes in Europe take great pride in their house wine.  I didn't know that - it sounds like house wine means something different there, maybe something exclusively produced for them or by them. 

Reply by GregT, Aug 23, 2012.

PS - Foxall gave you a good answer. I wish I could be as complete!

Anyhow, "house wine" is not a legal term. Basically it's whatever the establishment can get at a decent price so that they can offer a decent glass price to the customer and if they have part of a bottle left over that has to be used for cooking, that's OK.

So you usually don't find a "house wine" that's going to be $1200 a bottle or even $120 a bottle. Sometimes a restaurant will work with a winery as Foxall says, but that's kind of rare. It happens if the restaurant is in a wine region - lots of Gamay for example, was house wine in Lyon restaurants, and same thing elsewhere in the world. And if the restaurant is a chain, like Smith and Wolensky or Olive Garden, they'll work with someone for a private label, which may or may not be a good value.

I sold some wine that had one label in the store and we sold it to restaurants under a different label so they could offer it as house wine. That way you don't destroy the brand, but if a restaurant would take 50 or 100 or more cases at a time, you need to give them a good price.

So all in all, the term "house wine" is an ill-defined term. It's usually what the place can get cheaply, and therefore it's rarely a great wine. But it can be a good value if the place tries hard enough to find something good. And finally, many places change their "house" wine seasonally, monthly, or at some interval.

Reply by napagirl68, Aug 24, 2012.

Regarding restaurants working with wineries, and labeling it as their own: I agree with foxall and GregT... it happens, more often than is thought, in our area here in CA.  We are IN wine country, and lots of restaurants do this.  I also can see this not happening at all outside, say for example, napa and sonoma.  In especially dense winery areas, the winemakers often hang out at many local restaurants... relationships are struck.  These are not typically chains, like macaroni grill or olive garden.  These are the stars of food here in CA.  Some restaurant owners even make their own wine:-)  It really is a different experience from much of the rest of the country.

Reply by duncan 906, Aug 24, 2012.

In my experience the ' House Wine' is usually something the restaurant has bought in bulk and therefore got a good price on but is of reasonable quality or at least drinkable because a poor House Wine would not give a good impresion especially as at least half the customers will order it

Reply by JonDerry, Aug 24, 2012.

"house wine" is not a legal term. Basically it's whatever the establishment can get at a decent price so that they can offer a decent glass price to the customer and if they have part of a bottle left over that has to be used for cooking, that's OK.

Good points by Greg...I was thinking about this last night and another thing that comes to mind is that sometimes people just like to drink whatever the restaurant or establishment will give them for the cheapest price, and sometimes the customer might specify and say just give me the house chardonnay or house cabernet. So the restaurant needs to be prepared to deliver a kind of default wine for their customers that will both do the job and give them a decent profit. 

About the profit part, if they do enough volume they can probably source some fruit and make a deal with whoever's selling the grapes/making the wine for them to ensure said profit this way. At the other end, you might have a start-up (or more modest) restaurant just serve Castlerock or Gallo as their house wine and live with that.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Aug 24, 2012.

JD: Interesting that you mentioned Castlerock.  Those guys are negociants in the oldest sense of the word. They use really broad appellation names and sometimes can source terrific juice at really low prices.  But their upside is limited, because they can never really charge more than $10 a bottle because the low end of what they sell is worth about that, no more.  And since you can't tell if it's going to be better, who would pay more?  Every now and then, someone who has no idea probably gets a terrific wine and it goes right over his head.  I had a Monterey County PN from them that was great, but the next vintage it was barely worth the $10.  Totally different fruit/juice, I'm sure.  Unlike Cam Hughes, they don't invite any guessing games--no Lot Nos., just vintage and generic appellation.  On the other hand, the wine is never terrible--it's just usually not-special $10 wine.  They don't really do private label under that name, that I know of. Wheelhouse does a lot of private label and would probably be more likely to do a restaurant's house wine.

NG is right that the collaboration model is more common out here.  And a few restaurants have turned this into lines of wine, like Miura (sort of--it's a little complicated because they sold outside the lines, as it were, and there was some distinction between the winery and the restaurants that the founder worked for).

Definitely a huge chain that wants to be a little fancy, a la Olive Garden, would contract with someone to supply their "house wine," but mostly to skip over any middleman and reap as much profit and get as much control as possible.  They aren't going to go to some guy on the North Fork of Long Island for their mid-Atlantic establishments, RayLen for North Carolina, and Teldeschi for the Bay Area.  And it might be in a box, which isn't really the problem. You would hope that a big chain would insist on some minimum level of quality just to avoid alienating the odd wine lover whose in-laws insisted on going there, but, then again, those places don't lose money serving food that barely merits the name.  Such is the American palate these days!

Last night we had dinner at Pizzaiolo in Oakland.  We ordered a bottle of Montepulciano/Sangio/Lacrima from the Marche and the server asked us if we wanted it by the glass or bottle.  I said, it's only available by the bottle.  She said, Oh right, it was the house big red last month, now it's the Aglianico. 

Now that's a house red for you!

Reply by zufrieden, Aug 24, 2012.

Interesting and thoughtful comments.  I agree that house wine generally conforms to the descriptions given, although I often feel that there is a wonderful supply of quotidian-worthy elixirs that is overlooked for mass-marketed (not just mass-produced) juice.  Supply can be an issue as just-in-time inventory is the rule with house wine (as has been pointed out), but there really is no need to keep to a bulk producer over the long haul; rather, look to the best wine at the best price for the shorter term.  Small producers that are able to provide an ample supply of every day wine to some set number of restaurants should be entertained more often.  This is a major problem in my home area, where the production of premium wine can be supported by the sale of larger quantities of slightly lesser product for general food accompaniment. 

Well now that I have given a brief overview of this subject, is anyone up for another discussion of airplane wine? This subject is not new, but should be revisited; I had the pleasure of flying a certain well-known European airline this summer and have to say that house wine in most of my haunts seems like nectar of the gods in comparison.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Aug 27, 2012.

Yes, I had wine on the plane on my way to Europe.  It was KLM and it was a not-bad Chilean cab--I'd had it before when there was a VT on here for Chilean wine, so I knew what I was getting.  Then we flew back on Delta and I took one look at the wine, smelled it as they passed a glass by me, and decided to pass it up completely. 

Emirates Air supposedly serves Calera's entry level Monterey County Pinot as their house wine in business class--which is a nice and varietally correct pinot and a good value (here that, Lefty?).  I may fly business class on US Air in the fall, and I'll report back if I do.  I do remember flying to Europe in '88, TWA business class, and getting decent champagne (Mumm Cordon Rouge, I want to say) and some Remy Martin VSOP after dinner.  But those were the days compared to the current "air travel as Greyhound bus with wings" model.

Reply by zufrieden, Aug 31, 2012.

I have had that Chilean on-tap from KLM before as well and it is acceptable, though your description of Delta Air fare raised goose-bumps.  KLM does offer many drinks inclusive of fare so one does have to take that into consideration, I suppose.  I like your comparison to the earlier days of air travel: for example, I remember travelling to attend University in England and enjoying a fairly decent suite of wines and beer - all for the asking.

Reply by JonDerry, Aug 31, 2012.

I remember being served a Vin De Pays on my only trip with Air France, was very impressed indeed just that I was getting a legit wine, albeit a not so great one.

Reply by zufrieden, Sep 2, 2012.

Exactly. Very civilized.

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