Mutant Teenage Ninja Winelist

This post is a rant about restaurant winelist prices. I have long been a critic of some USA restaurants that burden us with overpriced and underqualified wines. Indeed, part of the reason wines have not become a part of ordinary life in the USA is because of the fuss and nonsense restaurants place on wine–unlike much of Southern Europe, where one can have an excellent vin de pays with lunch or dinner for a reasonable price.

To this end, I have long used a guideline (and taught it to many others) that with some exceptions the cost of wine should not exceed 1/3 the cost of the total restaurant check. Do the math: if you and your dinner mate have a nice steak, salad and dessert, perhaps each meal comes to $20-$35 (or more), depending on the restaurant. Thus the wine for two people should be within that price range to be 1/3 of the total bill. 

Reasonable, yes? And if the nearest thing to a decent wine is $50, then the restaurant is either gouging you on the wine, or has no clue about the magnificent selections to be had (in a retail store) for $10-15—or $6-10 wholesale.

Yes, the argument goes, the restaurant is using the same markup it applies to the other items it serves. And (the argument continues), it covers the cost of cellaring, fine glasses, and sometimes a knowledgeable Sommelier.

What brings this rant to the Wi-Know blog is a recent experience in a Florida restaurant, that is rated with a wine speculator “award of excellence”. The name of the restaurant, and its city are discretely withheld, but this post’s headline is a clue (don’t tell).

With a nice reputation for Italian food and a strong following, we selected this restaurant for a “Customer dinner”. You know, one of those meals you treat your customer to after a nice consulting engagement. Four of us studied the menu, and two of us selected wines for dinner.

Our wine-savvy customer selected a favorite California Cabernet. I reviewed the winelist and prices, and made an observation to the Sommelier, who was hovering nearby: “it looks like most of your low-to-mid-priced wines are marked up around five-times wholesale. Is that true?” He unabashedly said, “Yes”.

I spotted and ordered a Gigondas, a relative value at only about 2.5x retail. For those who don’t know about this region, it is Northeast of Chateauneuf du Pape, in the South Rhone Valley. It was excellent! We emptied this fine bottle of wine long before the Cab (an indicator of its flavor), and enjoyed it at a lower price.

Lesson: In most restaurants you can often find bargains in less-famous wines that are very good. But those who are familiar-label drinkers are at the mercy of their restaurants. Those of you who are most-savvy will apply my 1/3 rule, where practical, and look for the undiscovered bargains in wine.

Among my consistent (red wine) wins are bargains in the Southern Rhone, the South of France, South of Italy, Argentine Malbec, and still after 30 years, stellar Aussie Shiraz–all usually within my 1/3 the bill guidelines at intelligent restaurants.

July 2007 Update: “Wine speculator” just came out with their latest list of Restaurant Awards. Our subject restaurant is still on it. This shows that value and intelligent selection are not part of the award criteria. Wi-Know Emptor!

By the way, no one has yet figured out how the title of this post is a hint about the name of the restaurant. Let us know when you figure it out!