Friday, February 04, 2005

What’s reasonable in wine pricing when you’re out and about? (PB)

First point to know is this: There are NO deals when it comes to purchasing wine by the bottle at a restaurant. So don’t pick up a wine list with that in mind. But there is a difference between “normal” restaurant mark-up and ripping off the patron.

This is not based on anything other than my own experience and observation over the years. I always check the wine list of restaurants even when I don’t intend to have any wine. It’s fun and it’s really cheap—always a plus in my world—and it helps me to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s reasonable and where. What you should really be interested in is whether you are getting gouged when you buy a bottle in which case, if you really want wine with your meal—and why wouldn’t you—your best bet is to go to the “by the glass” listing.

So what is “normal” or better—typical? I have found that standard mark-up on a lower end bottle of wine at a run of the mill restaurant is around 100% over retail meaning if you can buy a bottle of wine at the supermarket for $8 it will cost you $16 at one of these restaurants. That percentage seems to decrease as you go higher up on the price of the wine but I believe it’s a pretty good rule of thumb. Last night I just happened to read an article in the Wine Enthusiast that said wine markups can run as high as 500%! I assume these would not be the types of places I would frequent; ca-ching!

Yesterday I was in a local BBQ joint for lunch. Definitely nothing fancy. I had no intention of buying wine at lunchtime but wanted to see what they offered. Their list was very small and familiar. There were two bottles listed that I had just reviewed within the last two weeks. One was Finca El Portillo for which I paid $7 in a store. The price at this restaurant was a ridiculous $24! The other wine I was very familiar with was an Argentinian Malbec for which I paid $10 in a store. To have it with dinner would cost $27. This is gouging. In which case you make a choice; either you say to yourself, money is no object or you say to the wait staff, “I’ll have a glass of your house red, thanks!”

This is not to discourage buying wine in a restaurant; it is to help you to know what you’re getting. A good restaurant wine list is a great way to try a wine you cannot find anywhere else. That is worth something—though not a 200% inflation. And if the restaurant has premier wine by the glass (rather than a bulk house win) even paying $10 or $20 for a glass of a wine is a great way to taste some really nice wines that you might never want to spend on a bottle.

I would invite my colleague NW to add his comments to this as his experience runs with the much higher end restaurant lists. I’d be interested to know what he finds. In the meantime, it’s about time to raise a glass!


Billy said...

well even though PB only invited NW to comment, I thought I would add my $.02 (or $2.00 if you were buying this comment at a restaurant). Ahoy quints, (billy) here. I spent a good amount of time behind the polished antique wood of an upscale bar and beach club while pursuing my degrees. We had a decent wine list that, as PB points out, was priced well beyond what you could pick up a bottle for at the local liquor store.

However, in my opinion, PB forgot to take several other factors into consideration. The restaurants are primarily though not exclusively out for profit when they price the wines on their lists. There is a value add to the fact that the wine appears on the list at all. A good restaurant will take several factors into account when constructing their wine list, whether by the bottle or by the glass. Factors like the menu, complimentary wine - food combinations, and ambiance all are taken into account. A good restaurant will employ the services of a credentialed sommelier - which may not come cheap. Remember, you're paying for that expertise as well.

Is it worth the (typically) insane markup? Well, that is debatable and the answer will probably depend on how well the rest of your night goes in addition to the wine itself.

The restaurant is selling you (at least attempting to) a complete dining experience of which the wine you and your guest(s) select is an important part.

PB said...

My spirited colleague points out a worthy consideration regarding upscale restaurants--namely, the total dining experience, profit, and a credentialed sommelier. (By the way, a sommelier is person who is trained and highly experienced in wine.) Now let this trialogue--when NW joins in--continue.

The total dining experience is certainly important. I am not convinced that exploitation of the patron on ONE item of the comprehensive dining experience is justified.

I am a capitalist plain and simple. Nothing wrong with profit; but there is profit and there is PROFIT.

I have no problem with an informed diner paying some exorbitant price for a bottle of wine if they are aware of it. But few people have any idea when they pick up that wine list what they are looking at. So you have a couple out for a very special Valentine's date and the guy picks up the list and orders a $40 bottle of wine believing he is getting something really special. In his world, he would NEVER pay that for wine in a store but this is to be a memorable night. What he ends up with is a $12 bottle of "okay" bubbly.

As for the added expense of a sommelier on staff that is a good point indeed. But...I can't say that I have EVER been in a restaurant with an honest to goodness sommelier on staff. (This is where our economic worlds diverge.)

So when I am asked to pay nearly $30 for an $8 bottle of wine which I selected without anyone’s help, and the wait person comes over, serves the wine too cold or too hot, obliterates the cork trying to get it out, and then pretends to shove the cork remnants up his or her nose in some pretentious show of "I know what I'm doing," the added cost to the consumer is profiteering not profit making. All I'm saying is "Caveat Emptor!" (PB)

Billy said...

As a point of clarification, I cannot say as I have ever been to a restaurant where a sommelier is on staff. Nevertheless, many times the services of a sommelier or other knowledgable enophile will be employed by your average restaurant with a wine list in a folio separate from the rest of the menu. There is a certain ammount of value add rolled into the price in that (presumably) the wines on the list have been selected to compliment the menu. Or at least provide a nice experiment.

As to the point about profit and PROFIT, hey, in this country if you can get someone to pay for it - why not. Unfortunately, I have to agree that with corporate expense accounts and sales folks wining and dining clients where $120 for a bottle of something with a label a prospect may be impressed with leaves little economic space for those of us with more modest means - as well as the guy on the Valentines day Date in PB's example.

The reality of the econmoic argument is that if the market will bear it (and unfortunately, you and I and most folks are not really "IN" that market - at least not regularly) we're left out. Fortunately, restaurant wine lists are not the primary means for purchasing a bottle of something nice.

On this we all agree, I think: Restaurant wine may be good for the experience and that may be priceless. But by Jove, you're going to pay for it.