Sunday, March 7, 2010

Wine Pricing at Restaurants

As a follow-up on the corkage fee discussion, I thought it might be time to discuss wine pricing at restaurants. Anyone who is familiar with retail wine prices should have a pretty good feeling for the markup of the price of a bottle of wine when you get that bottle at a restaurant as opposed to a retailer. It can literally be a factor of 1.5 to 2, or even a skosh more. At first blush, this seems a little excessive, but a little logic explains why this is necessary. It takes time, money, and space (all critical to any business) to procure, properly store, and serve wines in a restaurant setting. Even though the price of a bottle may be two or more times what you might pay at your local wine shop, I doubt most restaurants are raking in the cash selling wines.

The bottom line is that wine can be a spendy accompaniment to a meal when dining out. You are going to pay more. Get used to it. It's a fact of life. The real question is how do you recognize a value and how do you decide some particular price is just too high? Granted, it's not easy, and you will most definitely pay your share of "tuition" to become somewhat comfortable in the area. But, it is not as daunting as it seems.

  • Get familiar with wine prices in your area. Next time you run down to your retailer of choice, take your time and explore the shop. Look carefully at what is available and make note of the prices. In South Dakota, our "three tier" alcohol distribution system esentially means that certain distributors have dibs on certain wines. Accordingly, one would expect that the veritable monopoly this creates means that prices of a certain wine from the distributor to the retailer remain identical across the board. Not necessarily. Some retailers get deals- maybe based on volume, maybe based on relationships- there is not always rhyme or reason to this. Needless to say, though, retail prices can vary. The only way to get a feel for those prices is to get out and check them out. Take notes if that would help.

  • Once you have a feel for the retail price of wines, you can start to benchmark them against prices at various restaurants. My advice is to find a couple particular wines to use for comparisons. For example, you might know that J. Lohr Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon goes for about $18 bucks a bottle at most retailers. If you see it for $40 on a wine list, you can get an idea of the markup. If you notice it for $35 somewhere else, file that away into your data base.

  • Study, study, study. This is a touchy subject for me. Although knowledge of wines is power, too little is dangerous and too much can either vapor lock you or turn you into the worst kind of wine snob. Personally, I think you need to be familiar with varietals, appelation, and vintage. Older wines are not necessarily better wines. It all depends. Some years are better than others for certain varietals, but that can vary by location (appelation). If you aren't reading or talking to people, you might not know why, say 2005 was better for Sonoma cabs than 2007. If you aren't personally wired into the industry, you are going to have to read to keep up on this stuff. It can pay off, though, because sometimes local restaurants and servers aren't paying attention to vintages. You order the Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel, that's what comes out- but you might get a superior vintage, if you know what years you are dealing with. Don't be afraid to point out to your server that you were hoping to get the 2004 instead of the 2005. Nevertheless, too much knowledge can be a bad thing. Easily, one of the most annoying things I encounter in the wine world is the seeming ability of some people to memorize and rattle off the Wine Spectator or Robert Parker ratings for myriad wines. Look, if you can't consistently distinguish a wine rated 95 from a similar wine rated 85 in a blind tasting, just shut the hell up. Ratings have a place, and can be very helpful, but they are not and should not be the bellweather for selecting and distinguishing one wine from another. Only your own palate can do that for you.

  • Make friends with the "wine person." At most of the snazzier restaurants here in town, there is someone wandering around there that knows a whole lot about the wines on the list. He or she probably selected most of them for specific reasons. Don't be afraid to talk to this person and definitely don't be afraid to be very frank about what you want. Although restaurants are in the business of making sales, they also want you to leave happy and to come back. Tell the wine person what you are considering for entrees, what your likes and dislikes are, whether you are particularly interested in a certain appelation or varietal and what you are looking to spend. Please don't be afraid to ask about the values on the list. A good sommelier will point out wines that are drinking beyond their price.

  • Oddly enough, the more expensive the wine, chances are the less steep the markup. It's a little odd, but it's true. For instance, you might notice wines that you can buy for $10-12 on a list for around $25-30-- think Black Opal, Fisheye, Yellow Tail, etc. More expensive wines are not going get that kind of treatment. An example I have noticed right here in Sioux Falls are some of the Jessup Cellars wines. A bottle of Jessup Zin retails for about $40. You won't find that wine on any wine list in town for $80-90. You might even find it somewhere for about $50.
Get out there and check it out.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Corkage Porkage?

I was reading reviews on urbanspoon the other day and noticed a comment by someone regarding the $25 corkage fee charged by Parker's. Needless to say, the writer thought the fee was utterly uncalled for, excessive, and greedy. Hmmmmm. I'm not sure if the writer was implying that any amount was too much or just that $25 was too forking high.

It's an interesting topic, though.

For those who have no idea what a corkage fee is, it's a charge made by restaurants for the privilege of opening a bottle of wine that has been brought along with the diner. This is not to be confused with restaurants that are literally BYOB. (There are none of these I know of in Sioux Falls, but I am familiar with several in Chicago. Great places and you are free to drink on the premises. You just have to bring it along.) Corkage fees can vary. A lot.

So, let's address the first question: Is a corkage fee fair in the first place? You bet your sweet bippy it is! It's a restaurant for crying out loud. You know? A place that serves food, and often offers various beverages, often including cocktails, beers, soft drinks, and wine-- for money? They prepare and serve all this in a hopefully warm and tasteful atmosphere, staffed by knowledgeable, appreciative, and professional persons. In terms of wine, they have hopefully stocked a cellar with thoughtful selections ideally designed to compliment the food they serve. If they have really done a stellar job with the wines, they have a range of styles to suit individual tastes and have a few very special selections to suit individual passions. Someone had to figure all that out, and then the establishment had to lay out the ca-ching to stock the cellar. And, don't forget all the other things today's diners and winers demand- professional staff that knows how to present and open a bottle and good glassware that is appropriate for the wine. (Think Reidel.) All this takes money, all of which goes into the cost of the bottle of wine you order.

Bringing in a bottle of wine is akin to walking into a restaurant with a meal cooked at home, or take-out from another place, and asking for plates and flatware so you can eat it at the restaurant. Seriously. Think about it. These places aren't in business to provide ambiance for free. Actually, we have places like that here in Sioux Falls- they are called parks. Restaurants deserve to make an honest buck. They are going to make something when a patron orders a bottle of wine, or a beer, or a Diet Coke, or a steak. If you bring in your own, the restaurant has to bring you glasses you might break, and that have to be bussed and cleaned. The owners get the risk without any reward. If you think you should get this for free, there is something wrong with you. And, think of this, a private business owner would be well within his or her rights to tell you to put that bottle of 1945 Lafitte back in the Hy Vee bag you brought it in, because you ain't gonna open it here.

So, what is an honest buck? Good question. It's obviously in the eye of the beholder. In reality, it probably depends on the general expense level of the particular restaurant you are visiting. If they don't offer wine at all, you might catch a heck of a break on the corkage fee. If the list trends to the high end- mostly in the three digits and several in the four (or even five) digit range, don't expect a $25 corkage fee. A fee that is more or less in line with a moderate purchase is probably about right.

Tips to avoid corkage problems, and perhaps avoid one. Yes, here it is, the bullet point list of various tips and suggestions in no particular order:
  • Avoid an unpleasant surprise- call ahead. Corkage fees are not always prominently placed on the menu. Bringing in your own bottle(s) might not be allowed at all. Better to know ahead of time and be prepared.

  • BYOB sparingly, and only for special wines. What is a special wine? Easy. If you can buy it at Hy Vee, it probably isn't all that special. A special bottle purchased at a winery on that last trip to Napa- a wine that isn't available in SD, would probably qualify. The bottle of 1996 Dom Perignon given as a wedding gift by your inlaws is probably a winner. A truly rare vintage, lovingly stored, is probably in this category. 1995 Screaming Eagle Cab? You betcha.

  • If you are bringing in a wine that is generally available locally, but not on the list, suggest the restaurant add it. Hell, even if it's not generally available, ask. Restaurants and retailers usually have great connections with their distributors and, believe it or not, it is possible to get new wines into the state.

  • Offer your servers/owners/wine person a little snoot of your special treasure. They might appreciate it enough to waive a fee or two. You don't need to get half the house tipsy. Just be thoughtful and gracious.

  • Don't be a snob about your juice. Jerks are a lot easier to treat unreasonably. Even if it is a 1945 Bordeaux en magnum, it's wine, not water from the fountain of youth or Love Potion Number 9. If you brought it in to make a production and have everyone wonder what you've got and wish they were you, your priorities are out of whack.