What to Do With Your Restaurant’s Leftover Wine

Good wine is such a terrible thing to waste.
Think twice before throwing away unused wine. There are many creative ways you can recycle and save money, too. (Photo: sama_ja/Shutterstock)

The amount of wine wasted each year in restaurants is pretty amazing. It’s estimated U.S. restaurants throw out the equivalent of more than 18 million bottles of wine annually that are past their prime.

Most wine-serving restaurants can’t limit their offerings to full bottles and must serve wine by the glass, said Jeanette Hurt, food and wine writer and author of “Drink Like a Woman.”

Jeanette Hurt

“When the wine is fresh and delicious, maybe I’ll have a second one, but if it’s slightly off-tasting, I don’t — which means lost income for the restaurant.” -Jeanette Hurt (Photo: Kyle Edwards)

“Because my husband is not a wine drinker, when we go out I’ll just order one glass because I’m not going to drink a whole bottle by myself,” she said. “And when the wine is fresh and delicious, maybe I’ll have a second one, but if it’s slightly off-tasting, I don’t — which means lost income for the restaurant.”

Good wine is such a terrible thing to waste, so what do you do with the leftovers when oxidation begins? Instead of pouring money down the drain (quite literally), here are a few ideas from Hurt on how to cut back on wine waste at your restaurant and get more bang from every bottle.

Catch it

First, it’s critical to know the open-bottle shelf life for each wine you serve and track how long it’s been exposed to the air, so you can catch it before you accidentally serve bad wine to a guest.

Unfortunately, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for how long a wine will last once opened; it all depends on the varietal, Hurt explained. A full-bodied cabernet will last longer than a light pinot grigio, for example, but a heavily sugared riesling might last longer than a delicate pinot noir.

“Keep good inventory of your wine and when it was opened,” she advised. “If you know, for example, that this cabernet tastes good only for two days, then by that second day you need to do something with it before it goes bad and you end up just pouring it down the drain.”

Preserve it

Having a preservation system will reduce your restaurant’s wine waste by helping each bottle last a few days longer.

“Oxygen is the enemy, so you either remove the oxygen from the bottle or replace it with an inert gas like nitrogen,” said Hurt. “You can buy little bottles of gas from a liquor store that you just spritz right into the bottle, which will push out the oxygen. Then you put the cork in, and it tastes fresher for a few more days.”

One new technology reshaping the bar industry lets you pour wine from a bottle without ever pulling the cork. Created by the brand Coravin, this gadget inserts a needle into the cork and pulls the wine while keeping air exposure at a minimum, which can extend the life of a bottle for months.

Cook with it

The best use for wine that’s almost ready to go bad is in your cooking. Adding wine to slow-cooked dishes like chilis and stews can add a new depth of complexity to rather simple dishes.

“You can make a homemade cheese spread or fromage fort using butter, leftover wine, cheese, garlic, fresh herbs and cream cheese,” said Hurt. “Just throw it in the food processor and you’ve got a really lovely spread that you can use as a complimentary nosh to people at the bar.”

Reduce it


Try using leftover wine in a glaze or syrup. (Photo: LukeLuke/Shutterstock)

“I’ve also seen some people take leftover wine and cook it down into a syrup that they then use in cooking or in vinaigrettes,” Hurt said.

Drizzle a sweet wine glaze over fruit for a fresh take on dessert, or simmer it with herbs to create a savory sauce for chicken or steak.

“The other thing you can use syrups for, of course, is in cocktails,” she continued. “You could use a sweetened wine in place of simple syrup in a cocktail. Mix it with white rum in a daiquiri, and that would taste different. It would be a creative way to play.”

Freeze it

You can also freeze wine in ice-cube trays before it fully oxidizes and toss it into dishes as you’re cooking, said Hurt.

“If you’re going to do something like that, the front of the house, who serves the wine, has to work it out with the back of the house, the kitchen, to see if they would use it or not,” she advised.

Mix it

Even without first reducing into a syrup, extra wine can be used behind the bar in mixed drinks.

“Encourage your bartenders on staff to experiment with the wines in cocktails,” said Hurt. “Adding sugar helps cover up any oxidation, and you’re using up the excess wine. You can make sangria, for example, or a mulled wine. Traditionally those are red wines, but you can also do a mulled white wine using different spices. Those are pretty popular in winter because it’s cold and customers want something warm to drink.”

Sample it


Offer taste samples to customers from previously opened bottles of wine. (Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Opened bottles are also good for offering samples to guests as they make their wine selection. Not only will it use up the excess, but it also encourages more sales by the glass or bottle.

Always taste test samples from opened bottles first to ensure you’re not serving customers oxidized wine. A wine that tastes like wet newspaper will negatively impact a guest’s dining experience, and you don’t want them to associate that bad taste with your brand.

Discount it

Have a good bit left in the bottle? Offer customers a special on half-bottles of wines that have been opened, suggested Hurt. Since you’ll pour it into a carafe anyway, they won’t even know it’s coming from an open bottle.

Or, if you have a catering event that night, you can offer a couple “bonus” wine choices to the menu, and use up your excess before it turns.

Teach with it

A sommelier or bar manager can use leftover wines to educate your staff on what they’re serving guests. Say, for example, you’ve got an opened cabernet with dark cherry tones. Grab some cherries from the restaurant’s refrigerator and give your waitstaff — or even an interested customer — a mini education session, suggested Hurt.

“Have them smell the dark cherries then smell the wine so they can see where the aromas come from. You can pick up the notes of anise or pepper, cherries, raspberries or whatever it is that the wine has,” she said.

Leverage your staff’s creative power

“The other thing I would charge restaurants and bars is to use your own people’s creative power,” Hurt continued. “Find out how much you’re wasting and say, ‘Ok we’re wasting 20 bottles a month. How can we stop this?’ Tap into their creativity, and they might come up with some different things.”

Simply making sure your waitstaff is aware of how much wine is going down the drain will, in itself, help minimize restaurant waste.

“Any dollar saved or not wasted is more than two dollars earned, because you’re not taxed on it and you’re not throwing it out,” she said. “Especially in the restaurant industry where margins are so narrow at times, anything you can do for preservation and less waste can make a big difference on the bottom line.”

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