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The tyranny of the wine list


What is it about wine lists that gets people so riled up? There’s been a recrudescence of argument lately about whether a wine list reflects the wines of its surrounding region, and why so many restaurant wines are so  expensive. Dr. Vino commented on Eric Asimov’s blog which seemed to criticize San Francisco restaurants for serving non-California wines, even as they promote locally-produced food. This, in turn, prompted the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine editor, Jon Bonne, to chime in on his blog on what he calls “Northern California’s Wine List Exception. We insist on menus that harvest California’s bounty. Yet the same restaurants often look far afield for their wines, despite the fact we have one of the world’s largest wine economies in our backyard.”

In each of these cases the point is made that some restaurateurs don’t feel that California wines fit their foods. Too alcoholic, too fruity, etc., you know the routine. My own feeling, which is based on common sense, is to let the restaurateur, his chef and wine staff decide what wines to put on the list. Wine lists aren’t democracies. They shouldn’t strive for a form of political correctness whereby the list precisely mirrors some perceived regional demographic. The people who assemble the list should feel obligated to include a wine for one reason only: because it’s best for the food.

Then there’s the issue of price and image. Jon Bonne made an interesting remark. He observed that there are decent, affordable California wines that are food-friendly, “[b]ut too often they’re supermarket brands that are unlikely to appear on a Bay Area wine list precisely because they’re so widely available. Where do these wines show up? Chains, if anywhere. Which might be snobbishness on our part, but the truth of the locavore premise is that places that serve Marin Sun beef are unlikely to uncork BV Coastal. I’ve asked this question before: Where are the state’s equivalents of Cotes du Rhone — enjoyable, place-based red wines that go for under $20 on the shelf or $40 on a wine list?”

Well, Jon just answered his own question, didn’t he. California’s equivalents of Côtes du Rhône are all over the place. The only problem is they usually don’t bear famous names and are often sold in supermarkets, just like, well, Côtes du Rhône. Below are some wonderful, balanced, food-friendly California wines, both red and white, I’ve reviewed over the past year that could be on anyone’s wine list. I could have included dozens more. I call these “sommelier wines.” The prices are suggested retail. The issue, as Jon pointed out, is that they lack cachet. Who are the snobs that won’t let them into the gated community of wine lists? Restaurateurs? Sommeliers? Critics? Customers? Or all of us?

Eberle 2006 Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, $18
Lyeth 2006 Merlot, $11
Rendition 2007 Petite Sirah, $9
Toad Hollow 2007 Francine’s Selection Unoaked Chardonnay, $13
Mandolina 2007 Pinot Grigio, $14
Napa Family 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, $10
Bogle 2007 Riesling, $9
Brass Tacks 2007 Riesling, $15
Concannon 2008 Selected Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, $10
Educated Guess 2007 Chardonnay, $17
AutoMoto 2007 Riesling, $13
Charles Creek 2008 Riesling, $18
Sterling 2007 Vintner’s Collection Riesling, $10
Robert Hall 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, $15
Beringer 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, $16
Tercero 2008 Camp 4 Vineyard Grenache Blanc, $18
Bedarra 2008 Beachfront Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay, 18
Insatiable NV White Wine, $10 (Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio)
Jekel 2008 Riesling, $11

And speaking of critics

here’s a job out of Denver, which qualifies in more than one way as the mile-”high” city:

US paper seeks pot correspondent

“A US newspaper says it has received well over 100 applicants for the post of marijuana critic – many of whom have offered to work for free”

  1. Do local pot producers send along samples like wine producers? And just how much disclosure will the FCC demand on that?

  2. It’s actually the tyranny of the bottom line or how the management of restaurants view the role of wine in fortifying the bottom line. We’ve all heard variations of “we break even on the food, if we are lucky, our profit comes from the wine list”. But their take on this approach, which the wine industry should resent, is misguided. Most of us have noted that if the white table cloth restos would offer wines like the ones you cite above, they would up their covers. Instead, patrons order brewskis, tea or they nurse that $10 glass of wine.

    Someone should clue in the decision makers that they are missing the boat filled with a bit more treasure. That someone might analyze the two basic scenarios: restaurant A offers the usual suspects starting at $35, restaurant B, very similar in dishes, price and other variables, has some selections in the $20 to 30 range, and, gulp, maybe in the teens a la Fred Franzia’s view. What’s the end of month revenue? I would bet Restaurant B would have the higher gross income.

    Another factor: the heavy handed roll of the major distributors. But that’s for another post.

  3. Around here, in Paso Robles, the restos aren’t interested if it isn’t wholesaled for $10 (a very mediocre to tepid wine), to $19 tops for a top end wine, regardless of what it retails for. They (restauranteurs) generally are looking for a great wine they can sell for $10-$12/glass, and double (or more) the wholesale price. If you have a $60 (or more) retail wine, it is going to sit on the counter a very long time( or more likely, restos won’t even buy it), or you are going to have to wholesale it for no more than $19. Same for many wine shops, tho not necessarily here locally.

    The recession has hit restos hard, as everyone knows. They are happy to take a $70 (or more) superb wine and buy it for $19. Obviously that isn’t happening a lot, but there are a number of upper end local wines that just gather dust in Albertsons, Vons, etc, if they are retailing for anything over $39. For the vintner, it is just tough tiddy, and wait ’til 2011. Mind you, this is one person’s view, albeit thru a microcosm, and it is in a small market area, 4 hrs from SF and 4 hrs from LA. Talking to other vintners, most experience the same thing, but , there still remain a few wineries that do well, even in the recession. They do not spare the $$ on marketing, however, one of the first things to go in the business plan of a winery on the ropes.

  4. Steve,

    Great blog as usual! I really do not like ‘generalizations’ and ‘stereotypes’ about ANYTHING in life . . . It’s easy to do, but so often it is absolutely WRONG!!!

    Both Asimov and Bonne wrote interesting articles from their points of views, and I can apprecate what they both have to say . . . But you have pointed out where both ‘missed the boat’ so to speak . . .

    Why is it that so many critics continue to believe that all CA wines are big, over the top, and lack the correct structure to match with foods?!?!?!? Are there examples of these? Of COURSE there are . . . but if you take a close look at what winemakers and wineries have done over the past three vintages, I think we can ALL agree that most wineries (Not all – no complete generalization here!) have toned back their alcohol levels and made more ‘balanced’ wines, usually with lower pH levels and higher levels of acid . . .

    Perhaps the problem is that the large distributors help ‘control’ many wine lists and therefore ‘push’ the wines they want onto these lists – and many of these districutors have International brands that they make good $$$ on?!?!??! Just a thought . . .

    I will say that from a small winery perspective, it is not easy getting in to see restaurants to show them my wines . . . Times available tend to be very limited, and on those days when buyers ARE available, you often have to literally ‘waiit in line’ behind many many distributors just to be seen – assuming they still have time . . .

    In any event, thanks again for the blog . . . and for mentioning one of my wines – the other white that I make, a dry Gewurztraminer I call The Outlier, would be a nice addition as well (-:


  5. The Asimov article specifically called out two restaurants–Nopa and Slanted Door. A look at their wine lists tells a very different tale from place to place.

    Nopa, at which I have not yet eaten, has a very broad and cosmopolitan list. It has a fair number of CA wines that would seemingly pair well with its cuisine. The wine picker there does not care for the bigger style of many CA wines, and that is not a new argument. But, he does have local wines on the list that fit his desired profile.

    Their very existence is part of the proof that the list at Slanted Door is a farce. So, is the long list of worthies mentioned by Steve above.

    And why the argument of the Slanted Door wine picker that he could not find any CA, WA and only a couple of OR wines for his list is light years off base.

    Either the guy does not know his onions or he knows better but throws out that base canard to cover his own personal preudices. Frankly, he knows better, but has a different problem.

    Let’s face it. His list is pretty good when it comes to European wines. And the restaurant is more than pretty good. It is damn good. And I am happy to choose from his list of exceptional Germans, because he is right, the restaurant cuisine does like a touch of residual sugar in the accompanying wines. His list, just to name three, includes Willi Schaefer, Donnhoff and Muller-Catoir. I can’t argue with that. I drink those wines at Slanted Door.

    But, there are CA, WA and OR Rieslings from the likes of Claiborne & Churchill, Chehalem, Poets Leap, Pacific Rim, Ch. Ste. Michelle that have the same taste and structural profiles and are a lot less expensive. Yet, there is not one West Coast Riesling on the list. Or how about Navarro or Fogarty Gewurz? Or Blacksmith Chenin Blanc?

    OK, point made. The wines exist, they are good wines and they sell at price points that would make them affordable on the Slanted Door list.

    The final coffin nail in this guy’s argument as far as I am concerned is in the sparkling wine category. Slanted Door has ten of them on the list and they are from several parts of France, not just Champagne. CA makers like Roederer Estate, Schramsberg and DVX make wines with exquisite character, TA, pH and dosage numbers identical to their Champenois counterparts and sell them at prices lower than their counterparts.

    And in the $20 retail area, virtually every important label from J to Dom Carneros, Scharffenberger, Ferrer, Chandon, Mumm and Schramsberg’s Mirabelle bottlings are going to taste a lot like their French counterparts yet sell for half the price and are going to taste very much like them in the way they go with food. Indeed, since so many of the non-vintage Champers are heavy in Pinot Meunier and reach these shores at three to six years old, those wines are often less vital than the CA counterparts.

    Now, here is the kicker. Slanted Door has ten from France, none from CA. This is no longer a matter of taste profile, alcohol level, availability or price advantage. It is obvious on its face that the construction of Slanted Door list is biased not by wine profile but by the needs of the wine picker. It is not about the wine. It is about him. Asimov is right to point it out.

    San Francisco is a very cosmopolitan area with restaurants reflecting cuisines from around the world. We are very lucky in that regard. And wine lists should and do vary from place to place. But mostly it is about the wine. At Slanted Door, when it comes to including CA and West Coast wines, it is not.

  6. Then perhaps this is an opportunity for a truly local restaurant, including its wine list.

  7. There’s one Santa Barbara restaurant, Bouchon, I know of that carries exclusively local wines (other than a few high end Napa things for the uber-snobs). There may be others as well. But Santa Barbara County has some cooler regions that aren’t too famous. So there tend to be balanced options that aren’t outrageously priced. A similar exercise with Napa wines, between the absurd prices and warmer climes, probably would not work so well.

    Steve, part of the issue with the big-production wines is folks go out to eat since it’s not something they have at home. I don’t want to buy a grocery store wine, especially at triple retail, to pair with an interesting meal. Moreover, for every wine you’ve listed, there are several insipid, flabby, oak-dusted, 1%+ RS, spoofulated wines. If I walk into Vons or Ralphs, there’s an aisle filled with the stuff. How can I find the one or two CdR style reds amongst the ocean of mediocrity?

    A wine magazine (not WE) gave a high score to RedTree Pinot Noir, an $8 wine made with generic blending wine and presumably 75% Pinot to maintain its varietal label. Tales like these in the world of mass-produced wine are cautionary. I trust none of them as a result. Why can’t someone make a dry Zin with sub-14% ABV and no fake oak? That might make a decent, affordable, honest table wine.

  8. Aha. I love it. Steve has provided an answer to this dilemma, instead of stirring the pot.
    I love the idea of nurturing a CA Cotes du Rhone or VDP listing.

  9. I’m not sure I understand what Tom is proposing, if the restaurants are only breaking even on the food, then they should also break-even on the wine and go out of business? Or they should be charging $50 a plate? The most sadly amusing aspect of the restaurant wine debate to me is that any outsider who knew nothing about our culture or our businesses (say an alien) would think from the way people rail about restaurants that this must be the most profitable and easy business around, since they are ripping everyone off so much and also that most people who are in charge of them are marginally incompetent.

    On your bet, Tom, I’m guessing restaurant A will have higher net profits, really the only important metric as gross income is a convenient way to ignore your costs. It’s pretty hard to make up that $30-$50 a bottle in revenue through volume. Of course you can make B work and be just as profitable as A, but you better have set up your entire restaurant operation to do.

    As to Steve question about who is responsible for the snobbery of avoiding supermarket wines, I’d say the answer is all of the above, but really the person that counts is the customer. Greg nailed it in his answer, people do no go out to eat to buy grocery store wines. Is that silly if you have a great value available? Sure, but who ever said that we consume things in a rational manner?

  10. I saw an amusing quote from a wine list recently. It said “we do not charge the usual triple to quadruple markups on our wines.” Quadruple markups? I suppose that was to make me feel better about “only” paying double to triple markups. I did not order any wine.

  11. I have written wine lists in Chicago for over 20 years now.
    People continue to complain about the “overpriced wines” in restaurants. Some here have rightfully said it isn’t easy to do, and they are right.
    As for why some local San Francisco restaurants don’t feature local wines, I think it is a marketing concept. Trying to stand out in the crowd for the consumers and also get some critical awards. With the internet around, it is easy to see what everyone is doing with their lists and menus. The consumer can see this as well.
    As to the idea that restaurants “just break even on the food” –that is so much BS. If they are open for any length of time, they are making good profit on food. Only the closed places don’t profit. If an 8-10 oz $30 ribeye steak dinner has a cost of more than $10, I will show you an operator who is going to change his price very quickly.
    A restaurant without a bar business is also not paying sometimes costly licensing fees, insurance rates, etc.
    It takes a lot of $10.00-a-bottle profits to pay the current $4400/yr city fee. Payable every 2 years –$8800 payment. Close to 40 cases of wine a year to just pay the license costs. Then there’s the liability insurance required. Thousands more in payments per year.
    It’s not easy to sell those less expensive wines in restaurants except by the glass. $10 retail bottle prices point to $7± wholesale cost. And these wines are what are loading the shelves at grocery, wine, liquor stores everywhere. Not an indication of quality that every restaurant wants to be known for.
    Those $150 wines at retail are going to cost $100±. And not everybody who eats at the restaurant is aching to pay over $200 or $250 or more for 5 glasses of wine.

  12. Phil, I’m wondering if a restaurant couldn’t operate under a different business model. Raise food prices a few $ per plate, then move a bit more volume on drinks. Many restaurants seem to operate on this “jackpot” scheme where they make all their money Fri and Sat and off a few expensive wine sales. They don’t need to aim for volume like Applebees, but they are basically saying they sell a luxury good, so you pay a lot. There’s a middle ground that can be attained, if you are smart.

    Another I forgot to note is Steve’s list has about 75% white wines listed. Reds are the biggest problem with respect to spoofulation. Definitely a lot of producers offer great inexpensive alternatives to the butter Chard avenue now. But the oak chip red still dominates. I’m still fairly certain there’s no commonly available red Beaujolais or CdR equivalent. Something maybe funky/Bretty, rusticly tannic but dry would be perfect in this role.

  13. Greg, definitely agree that there are many approaches to restaurant profitability, and as bob pointed out, some without liquor. My point is that any approach has to be integrated across the entire restaurant operation, that simply lowering your markups does not necessarily increase your profit. The other consideration is differentiation, there are plenty of great stories about low-markup establishments that really make it work, part of the reason why it works for them is that not everyone does it that way so they can attain the volume they need.

    As a side note, I think the reason you don’t see more restaurants doing what you suggest is because the overwhelming majority of consumers make pricing decisions based on the price of the food, not the price of the wine. I know wine folks don’t like to hear this, and restaurant people are I think uncomfortable stating it, but I think the fact is that most restaurants set up their pricing models with non-connoisseurs in mind and don’t worry as much about turning off people who really know their wine.

    The break-even point is not about marginal profit, to my mind, where I agree that you better not be losing money on every plate, but overall profit. Since fixed costs can be so high, the question becomes does the marginal profit on food cover all of your fixed costs and then some?

    The bottom line on this entire topic is that people vote with their wallets. If the pricing at a restaurant is out of whack and stuff doesn’t sell, either the restaurant will adapt or fail. If the stuff is selling, then by definition the prices are not out of whack. This is a pretty pure industry in terms of free market pressures and I think most restaurant operators want to make as much money as they can. So if a place can sell 10 bottles of a particular wine in a month at $350 versus 15 bottles a month at $200, they’ll price at $350, a full $150 more, which seems outrageous, but makes them more money. I do think that some places don’t look enough at the possibilities of increased profits through models that differ from the established standard and there are certainly places that can do better by lowering their prices, but if prices were as bad as everyone claimed, then it wouldn’t have taken a big recession to put a serious dent in the industry, they would have been in trouble years ago.

  14. Chuck Hayward says:

    The main issue here is not the pricing or wine styles. There are great wines made locally that would fit the preferred styles of either NOPA or Slanted Door. To use just one example that popped in my head rather easily, look at the great wines of Skylark, made by John Lancaster and Rob Perkins who are the wine buyers at Boulevard. You KNOW they make wines that work with food being on THAT end of the wine business. And the price point thing is bogus as well. Their wines are on the shelf for a touch over $20.

    Again, as usual, Clarlie Olken has it right on the money in many of the issues he addresses. However, the real issue is the hypocrisy of it all. If we were to visit Italy and have Aussie wines rammed down our throat, we would scream in horror and decry the internationalization of wine. At the same time we want, sometimes require that, that we drink the wines of the regions where the food comes from. We romanticize how great it is drinking pichets of vin rouge in southern France and marvel at how the food of Bologna goes so well with the local wine. What arrogance allows us to be exempt from all of this?

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