Volare Chef Josh Moore famously posts pictures of himself on his Instagram page proudly holding each day's fresh, sustainably caught fish special. This was a black grouper from Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, featured on Derby weekend.

Half-price wine, what a deal!

By Robin Garr

It may be true that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, or at least that a free lunch rarely comes without a quid pro quo. But half-price wine? Now, that is a thing!

Locally and around the nation, a surprising number of restaurants choose at least one evening per week to offer all or part of its wine list at half-price, usually with the purchase of a meal. A few, like Louisville’s Volare Ristorante, go a step further with half-price wine seven days a week for patrons dining at the bar.

These deals go beyond the traditional happy hour, with its half-price offerings on beers, well drinks, and wines by the glass, by allowing the diner to choose an interesting bottle of wine to enjoy with a partner through the entire meal. And if a whole bottle is too much for you to finish at a sitting, Kentucky law now allows you to take your leftovers home to enjoy another day.

Every night is half-price wine night at Louisville's Volare Ristorante, where the 55-item bar wine list is offered at half price seven days a week.
Every night is half-price wine night at Louisville’s Volare Ristorante, where the 55-item bar wine list is offered at half price seven days a week.

“It’s a great thing,” says Josh Moore, executive chef and managing partner at Volare. “With one or two of the small plates that we have on the bar menu, or pizza, and a half-price wine, you can get a really nice meal for an affordable price.” (Moore is pictured at the top of the page, Instagramming a fresh, sustainably caught black grouper from Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. that was Volare’s fish special on Derby weekend.)

It should be obvious that half-price wine night has its appeal for diners who enjoy wine. “We had a good restaurant nearby that had a happy hour, appetizer half price and reduced price for wine,” said Facebook friend Frank D. “We went several times, and otherwise we rarely visit restaurants.”

What’s in it for the restaurateur?

But what’s in it for the restaurateur? That gets a little more complicated, but it does make sense. “We’ve been doing this for more years than I can say. A long time,” said Volare’s Chef Moore. “We do other promotions over the years, but the half-price wine at the bar we’ve always done. It’s great, it makes sense. There’s no labor in a bottle of wine so it’s easy to to do.

Half price appetizers or cocktails are harder to justify,” he said, because you can’t cut the labor costs of preparing those items. But half-price wine “makes sense for us and the guests love it. I think a lot of our patrons come in for the half-price wine.”

Volare offers about 55 bottles on its half-price list at the bar, Moore said. At half price they range from $20 to 65 for a bottle. What’s more, on Wednesday evenings, the entire dining-room wine list is half price, excluding only the high-end reserve list.

The math of wine markups

What Moore isn’t saying out loud is the simple truth about alcohol’s place in the restaurant business: Markups on wine, in particular, are so high that it’s easy to offer substantial discounts and still come out ahead.

The numbers are simple: A bottle of wine that’s priced at $12 wholesale might sell for $18 at your local wine shop, but it turns up with a $25 to $35 or even $40 price tag when you order it from a restaurant wine list.

Restaurants operate on tight overall margins, more than ever now that server and kitchen wages are gradually becoming a bit more fair. Food prices are rising, and it’s hard to cut costs there. But alcohol sells well, and that’s where restaurant managers turn to make their numbers work.

Wine by the glass, in particular, is a category that makes the owner smile. It’s standard practice to set the price for a glass at the wholesale price for the bottle. Sell one glass and you break even; the rest is profit.

Bottle pricing isn’t quite so spectacular, but many restaurants still set their wine-list prices at triple the wholesale price. That allows plenty of room for discounting – yes, even half price – and the restaurant still comes out well ahead.

From the server’s point of view

“When I was waiting tables before grad school,” recalled former server Brian Smith, “my restaurant had a half-price bottle night. I found that while it didn’t necessarily drive more business (we weren’t necessarily busier on that night than other nights during the week and I doubt we were busier on that night than we would have been absent the deal) it did make for higher check averages. Whereas a couple might normally just each get a glass of wine, they instead opted to get a nicer bottle since it was half off.”

Cindy Franklin, another former restaurant server, agreed. “I have not worked in service for many years, but as a consumer I have not minded raising the total bill by purchasing a bottle on sale. It feels like a good deal, and you can be more generous pouring for your guests.”

Ready to go get a half-price bottle with dinner? You won’t have a hard time finding such a deal. A list posted on the HotBytes forum in 2019 listed more than 75 local restaurant half-price specials. Wednesday was the big day, with plenty more on Mondays and Tuesdays, an apparent move to bring in traffic on traditionally slow evenings.

Find half-price wine? An easy reference

One easy reference, the Louisville Mom Collective maintains an extensive list of local restaurants with half-price wine offers. It’s not hard to find deals at your favorite spots on your own. Simply follow the Facebook and Instagram pages and websites of your favorite eateries and watch for announcements. And then put on your going-out-to-dinner clothes and enjoy a dinner with wine. Cheers!