Corking profits: How our best restaurants massively overcharge when it comes to wine

Even Gordon Ramsay, often regarded as a hero of British cooking, is said by the Time Out London Eating and Drinking Guide to ask too much of diners at the Claridge's restaurant run by his protégé Angela Hartnett. The Ivy, that famous haunt of celebrities and media powerbrokers, is also fingered for over-charging.

There is criticism too of the trendy Chinese restaurant Hakkasan (where a £7.99 bottle of wine costs £25), the Ritz, the Ledbury in Notting Hill and the Greenhouse, Mayfair.

A bottle of 2000 Marqués de Riscal Rioja Reserva costing £31 at the Ivy can be had for £9.99 at Majestic. A 2001 Côtes du Rhône costs £30 at the Ritz - but £8.49 in Oddbins.

"The Ritz isn't alone in imposing such steep mark-ups," said the guide's author James Aufenast. "Other fine dining restaurants, such as Gordon Ramsay's Angela Hartnett at the Connaught and the Greenhouse in Mayfair, the Capital in Knightsbridge and Tom Aikens in South Kensington, mark up way beyond what is reasonable."

Restaurant critics say the overcharging goes on across the country. "There's some rapacious pricing in London," said Neil Beckett, editor of Fine Wine magazine. "I don't eat out that much precisely because of what a decent bottle costs. It's a shame, because there are some great places, but you just end up paying through the nose."

The suspicion is that restaurants are capitalising on the national nervousness about wine.

Almost two-thirds of people questioned for the Australian winemaker McWilliams last month said they would not send back wine in a bar or restaurant for fear of looking stupid. Some thought the term "oaked" meant the wine was made from acorns.

As a result, many diners opt for the house wine - but that is a mistake, according to Time Out. After costs to suppliers, shippers, and bottlers, the amount spent on making the wine might only be 30p. "It's impossible to make good wine at this price," the guide says.

Restaurants deny they are ripping off the public. Dawn Davies, head sommelier at the Ledbury, defended charging £19.50 for a South African red, Flagstone's 2003 Cellarhand Backchat, four times the cost. "That's normal for London, it's what you need to make a profit," she said.

Corinne Michot, head sommelier at the Connaught, said customers demanded expensive wine. She said: "If I list a wine under £100 guests think there's something wrong with it.''

But not everyone in the restaurant trade backs the mark-ups. Martin Lam, owner of the modern European restaurant Ransome's Dock, said that charging three times the cost was reasonable for food - but not for wine, for which labour costs were much lower.

The critic's guide to getting value for money

Don't automatically plump for the house wine or cheapest option

The house wine is the bulked-out plonk with a fancy label that tastes of nothing - if you're lucky. Far better to spend a little extra on a wine that's been proudly selected by the restaurant for its good value and suitability. Where there's a strong wines-by-the-glass list, give yourself the option to vary your wines or order the bottle if you really like the wine.

Ask the sommelier what's good value

Today's sommelier is a different animal from the supercilious caricature of yesteryear. A professional sommelier will already have done the selection process with the menu or style of cooking in mind and be only too keen to advise.

Give a wide berth to the "classics"

Bordeaux, Chianti and New World icon wines priced in la-la land are as often as not a let-down. Check out an unusual grape variety or off-the-beaten-track region.

Seek out the wine list

Look for a restaurant with a good reputation for its wine list and not too hefty a mark-up. If you have a place in mind, look it up on the Net and see what others have said about the wine list and any bottles they've enjoyed.

Make friends and influence people

If you're a regular, or have a good local restaurant, develop a relationship where they'll let you bring your own bottle of wine and charge you corkage. Don't bring a Blossom Hill or Mateus Rosé but something a little bit special or interesting which isn't on their list. Or eat out at a good BYO, where you can indulge to your heart's content. But walk, cab, take public transport home or designate a driver.

Don't let the waiting staff overfill your wine glass

Properly-trained staff shouldn't fill your glass more than half full. If your glass is filled, you'll be inclined to gulp it down and there won't be room in the glass to appreciate the aromas. A swirl and a sniff will reveal hidden depths in a wine.

Drink water, plenty of it

Not expensive bottled or designer water, but simply tap water. Using wine to quench your thirst can only mean more wine and greater expense.

Anthony Rose, Independent wine critic

Sinners...

* The Ivy, Covent Garden

* Angela Hartnett at Connaught, Mayfair

* The Ritz, Piccadilly

* The Greenhouse, Mayfair

* The Ledbury, Notting Hill

...and saints

* Andrew Edmunds, Soho,

* Le Colombier, Chelsea,

* RSJ, South Bank

* The Terrace, Kensington.

* Rocket, Mayfair

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