The Cyrano Wine Column: Restaurant Wine Lists

April 23, 2023

Restaurant Wine Lists (a primer)

Part 1

There are many things to consider when choosing a restaurant, and the quality of the wine list, while not the most important, can be a major deciding factor. The quality of the list is not just based on selection, but also on price, by the glass options and compatibility with the food being served.

I believe selection to be an important aspect and generally show a restaurant’s commitment to the wine program. A list populated with well-known brands and wines easily found in the supermarket reflect a lack of concern for what is being offered the customer. Some restaurants will not take the time to carefully select a list and will simply hand the project over to a distributor. This is by far and away the most egregious mistake and saddles them with poorly selected product based on what is best for the distributor.

This is not to say that some recognizable names are in and of themselves a bad thing, it is just that one would hope for a bit more imagination

A list does not have to be large to be good. It is much more difficult to write a short, well-chosen list than it is to create a massive, all encompassing one. With a small list every choice counts and any misstep can be obvious.

This is a tricky one because price does not always reflect value. There is a different pricing mechanism for by the glass wines (BTG) and bottle wines so I will address them separately.

BTG – It is no secret that this is where most of the money is made in any restaurant wine program and it is also where the restaurant faces the risk of the most waste. That is why the pricing is different for these wines. By and large the restaurant tries to get the price of the bottle out of the first glass of wine. This is assuming that the pour is six ounces and they are getting 4 pours per bottle (I would argue that most places are getting closer to 5 pours per bottle) keeping their cost of goods at around 25%.

Here is a good BTG example of perceived value based on price:
Where I live a restaurant was recently lauded on the community food boards for having well priced wines by the glass. This restaurant was pouring a pinot grigio, chardonnay and pinot noir from the same producer as their basic “house pour” for 6.00 a glass and 19.00 a bottle, a seemingly good price. But here is the rub- the average retail price of this wine in the United States is 5.00 a bottle. This means that the wine was purchased from the distributor at around 4.00 dollars a bottle making the markup on this a whopping 150% BTG. This, of course, represents no value at all. And to be frank, when buying chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot, cab or any other popular varietal wine, you really should expect to pay between 12 and 16 dollars for something of good quality. Anything priced below that is generally going to be from a large producer of manufactured, fairly artificial wines. Of course, as with everything, there are going to exceptions to this rule and it is a good idea to ask when you do not know.

But one thing is for certain – if you are ordering “House Wine” you are getting screwed.

By the Bottle- Here the rules are not so straightforward as a number of factors come into play. When I started in the wine business it was generally accepted that pricing bottles of wine on your list at twice the retail price was the norm. That is, if a wine were 25.00 in a store it would be around 50.00 on a wine list. This was based on the tenet that the retailer was marking up the wine 1.5 times (if it is 25.00 it cost them roughly 16.50) and that the restaurateur was marking it up 3 times.

Times have changed though. Internet presence, and larger wine stores have driven down pricing so some retailers work on as low as a 20% markup. This means the same wine that was heretofore 25.00 could now be found for as little as 19.99. Oddly enough restaurants have not followed suit and, by and large, still mark the wines up three times. Based on the old rule the wine should be 40.00 but instead, will still hover around 50.00 (2.5 times retail). Ideally wines should be marked up no more than 2.5 times over wholesale (16.50 x 2.5 = 41.25) but we have not seen that shift just yet.

But there are quite a few other factors affecting price. Popularity, scarcity, demand will all drive cost up. If you have to have Rombauer or Santa Margherita you are going to pay a premium. If there are very few bottles in the world to be found you are going to pay a premium (top flight Bordeaux and Burgundy). If it is the “hot wine” of the moment (Sea Smoke, Kosta Browne) you are not going to see any deals.

BTG Options
As shown above, here is where the rubber really meets the road. A well-chosen BTG list should:
• cover at least 4 weight profiles (light to heavy) for both red and white selections and have thoughtfully chosen sparkling and champagne options (read: not Korbel or Freixenet).
• be listed by variety as most French, Italian and Spanish wines are designated by their region as opposed to variety (i.e. Sancerre is made from sauvignon blanc). This helps in avoiding confusion.
• should be fairly priced and offer value and interest.
• I am not a believer in alienating the customer by not having some familiar types of wine so I feel a chardonnay and pinot noir are always best to be included (and generally not from California as there is better value to be found in France and Oregon).
• after that the type of food being offered should dictate it. No reason for a seafood restaurant to carry a cabernet sauvignon by the glass (witness the numerous sushi and Thai restaurants that do just that but have nothing that actually goes with the food).
• there are numerous choices for wines on the lighter end of the spectrum, both red and white and this is where a great deal of value lies. Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio are very unimaginative choices but will do fine in a pinch. Gamay, Barbera and Cabernet Franc are great on the red end along with numerous others. What would really be nice to see is a good smattering of interesting varieties offered from all different parts of the world and for these to actually go with the food.

And one other thing: the bottle price of the BTG wine should never be 4 times the glass price. The whole reason for the disparity between the glass and bottle price is to cover possible waste. But this becomes completely irrelevant when the wine is sold by the bottle. This just taking advantage of the customer and is wholly unacceptable and you should demand that it change. If you see that the bottle price is 4 time the glass price do not pay it and move on to the general list where the spread is much more favorable.

As with anything else, the more you are willing to try new things, the greater the reward. But hey, if you have to have a Cabernet Sauvignon by the glass don’t come to me if you feel you were overcharged. They probably saw you coming.

To be continued…

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