If there is one thing that wine enthusiasts have in common (maybe the only thing?) it is their frustration with wine in restaurants. I was reminded of this fact as I read through the weekend newspaper wine columns. Lettie Teague’s Wall Street Journal piece is an extended rant (or maybe she’s venting and not ranting) about wine-by-the glass in restaurants.
The Confidence Game
Teague can’t decide which is worse in restaurant wine-by-the glass programs — the price or the quality. The rule of thumb is that restaurants charge as much per glass of wine as they actually paid for the whole bottle (and sometimes even more). This makes her feel ripped off. At the same time, the wine has been sitting around open for who knows how long, losing some or all of its freshness. Fancy wine storage systems can help with this, but still it’s difficult to order a glass of wine (sometimes for $25 or more) with much confidence.
Over at the Financial Times Nicholas Lander approaches the issue from the business side and looks for a solution in cooperative arrangements between wine collectors (who are willing to sell off some of their stash at market prices) and restaurants who offer these wines to their customers at reduced mark-ups. The collectors get a fair price on their investment, the restaurants get a middle man return without big up-front costs and customers get access to special wines at lower prices. A great idea, but perhaps hard to scale-up.
Restaurant wine is like a double-sided jigsaw puzzle. The same pieces have to fit together to form two different appealing pictures — one for the customers and another for the business. If any of the pieces are upside down or missing, the whole experience is ruined.
Putting the Pieces Together
Not that it is impossible to put it all together. One of my most completely satisfying wine experiences of recent years was a dinner at The Black Rabbit Restaurant at Edgefield, a funky old hotel in Troutdale, just outside of Portland, Oregon. A bottle of the stellar 2006 Fielding Hills Cabernet Sauvignon sold for the same price that the winery was charging at that time — what a deal! It wasn’t the only good value on the menu, either. (The current wine list on the Black Rabbit website lists a 2007 Ken Wright Cellars McCrone Vineyard Pinot Noir for $60. I saw the same wine on another wine list for about $200. Where are my car keys?)
How can they do it? Well, Edgefield is an unusual operation. It is an affordable destination hotel housed in a former Depression-era poor farm (really!) with its own movie theater, winery, brewery and distillery. The owners can afford to sell their own wine at good prices and the rest of the list falls into place around those wines. Edgefield is part of a regional chain of restaurants and hotels, so some scale economies may exist, too.
Edgefield shows that it is possible to put the pieces together to everyone’s satisfaction. But is it the model for restaurant wine programs generally? Obviously not. Like Lander’s proposal it is too much of a special case, but it shows that there is hope for constantly disappointed wine enthusiasts. Unlike a real jigsaw puzzle, which has just one solution, I think there are probably many different ways to put the pieces together to improve the restaurant wine experience.
Flemming’s Steak House offers 100 wines by the glass at its restaurants, for example. Although Lettie Teague is appalled by this for the price and quality reasons noted above, the broad choice may please many customers. After all, we are accustomed to choosing from a huge wine selection at competitive prices at supermarkets and wine shops. Even a very large restaurant wine list (say, 300 choices) is tiny compared with your local upscale supermarket, which may have 2000 or more wines on the shelves.
The fact that the restaurant charges a semi-monopoly price (hard to get a competitive bid once you’ve been seated) makes the situation more frustrating.
One solution is to loosen the monopoly hold on price, which some restaurants are doing right now by reducing or eliminating corkage fees. Bring your own wine (purchased at normal retail prices) and enjoy dinner and a wine experience. Since wine is typically the highest priced item on a restaurant bill (more expensive than the entree, for example), reducing the wine cost removes a disincentive to dine out.
I don’t think many customers take up the “no corkage fee” offer, but some do and if treated well they are likely to return to dine again. If there are conditions on free corkage (the wine cannot be on our list, for example, or free corkage on one bottle if you purchase a bottle from us) they need to be clearly stated to avoid misunderstanding and hard feelings.
The continuing recession is putting more strain on restaurant wine programs, which is unfortunate for everyone involved. But perhaps it will also spur the search for creative solutions to the double-sided puzzle problem.
One interesting approach to the wine-by-the-glass problem, for example, is keg wine — wine packaged in reusable steel containers. Cheaper per unit than bottled wine (assuming that the keg can be returned and refilled efficiently) with a reasonably long quality shelf life if properly tapped, keg wine may be the rosy future of restaurant wine-by-the-glass.
Someone should tell Lettie Teague the good news.
Thanks to Michael and Nancy Morrell for their assistance with this report.