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Tipping on expensive wine

If we order a very expensive wine at a restaurant, do we need to tip the same percentage on the wines that we do on food?

The answer is both yes and no, depending!

Tipping can be confusing and in practice, is highly variable. In the U.S., tips on food and drink generally range from 15–20% of the amount before taxes. In fact, it is generally considered bad form to tip less than 15% unless the service has been extremely poor.

In recent years there has been a “tipping creep” to the higher amounts of 20% and even 25%. Some restaurant chains have even eliminated tipping altogether if the restaurant pays at the minimum wage or above rather than the sub-minimum wage (at least $2.13) for “tipped” employees. Many states are raising or at least talking about raising, the sub-minimum wage to the minimum wage. Couple this with the fact that there are many different tip-sharing policies and percentages that a restaurant may have and even some siphoning off of tips by the management. This means you have no idea how much of your tip goes to whom.

Restauranteurs, experts, and wine writers almost always recommend a 15–20% tip on the full food and wine bill, even with a bottle of very expensive wine that is priced out-of-proportion to the food cost. Let’s face it though; they are biased by their financial interest. Just scan the internet for comments about tipping on very expensive wine in a restaurant. Customers often don’t do it.

Their rationale:
“It doesn’t take more effort to serve a $500 wine versus a $50 wine”
“Ten percent on wine is plenty for something as over-priced as restaurant wine”
“If the quality of the service is less than exceptional … I don’t tip on wine at all.”

The sub-minimum wage earned by most waitstaff may not even cover payroll taxes and other government deductions so, in effect, your server is totally living off tips. If you know for a fact that almost all of the gratuity is going to the server (you can ask the restaurant manager about this), then tip generously.

My suggestion is this: If the wine cost is equal to, or less than the cost of all the food, tip 15–20% on the full wine and food pretax amount. If the wine cost is over the food cost, tip additionally, but not necessarily a full 15–20% and even less if you sense an excessive wine mark-up by the restaurant. On the other hand, if you are wealthy or feel super generous, please tip on the entire bill. I’m all for the recirculation of wealth.

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