The final panel discussion at this year’s Professional Wine Writers’ Symposium in the Napa Valley was devoted to restaurant wine lists (students from the Culinary Institute of America’s wine program attended along with the wine writers). “Wine List: Friend or Foe?” was the topic and New York Times critic Eric Asimov was the moderator.
There was a lot to talk about because everyone seems to have an opinion or a pet peeve about restaurant wine, but time was limited and when I saw one of the panelists, Andrea Robinson, shortly after she smiled and struck a “wine economist” chord: “I wish we could have talked about price elasticity of demand,” she said.
Price elasticity of demand? Yes! That is how we economists talk about how consumers respond to the prices of different products and it is a fascinating question when it comes to restaurant wine.
The wine world knows Andrea Robinson as a Master Sommelier, wine book author, television presenter and former dean of the French Culinary Institute, but I know her as a keen student of economics and she and I are conspiring to organize an occasional series of Wine Economist columns that explore the fascinating issue of restaurant wines and their prices, which actually began a couple of weeks ago with my piece on “Restaurant Wine Wars and the Curse of the Second Cheapest Wine.”
Warning: Economics Content
You probably studied price elasticity of demand in your Econ 101 class, but in case you are a little rusty about the concept, here is a quick review. Price elasticity of demand is a measure of how responsive a product’s buyers are to changes in price. If the demand is elastic, then a relatively small change in price results in a proportionately greater change in quantity purchased. If the demand is inelastic, on the other hand, that same change in price produces a proportionately smaller change in quantity purchased.
The difference between elastic and inelastic demand is very important, especially when it comes to something like wine in restaurants. If the demand for wine-by-the-glass in your bistro is elastic,for example, then lowering the price results in a big enough boost in sales to increase wine revenues. Money from new purchases more than offsets the revenue lost from lower price on the wine you would have sold at the old price. Does that make sense? So lowering price increases wine revenue if the demand is elastic.
If the demand is inelastic, however, then cutting price is a revenue-losing proposition. The small increase in additional sales is more than offset by the money you lose due to lower per unit revenue on existing sales. You would need to raise price (if the competitive environment allows) to increase total revenue.
Oversimplified bottom line: all else being equal lower prices are worth exploring if the demand is elastic, but higher prices may be a better choice if there is an inelastic demand.
They’re Either Too High …
What is the right strategy for restaurant wine? Are wine prices too high as many consumers complain? Or are they too low? This is a surprisingly complicated question if only because there are so many different types of restaurants in different market environments and competitive situations and of course so many wines to choose from, too.
The case is very far from the economist’s ideal of perfect competition. Finding the sweet spot where both diner and restaurant benefit is necessarily pretty difficult and with alcohol revenues so important to restaurant bottom lines, making a strategic error could be costly.
Restaurants are right to worry that they leave money on the table if they price too low, but they should also be concerned about lost customers and sales if prices are too high. If I go to a restaurant and there are bottles of wine on just about every table, I have to think that the wine program is doing something right.
If you ask consumers about restaurant wine prices, most complain about high mark ups. The rule of thumb, for example, is that a glass of wine in a restaurant is priced at the wholesale price of the entire bottle — this strikes many diners as excessive. And the mark-up on bottle wine can be very high, indeed, compared with retail prices.
Or Not High Enough?
But sometimes the problem is that the price isn’t high enough. I visited a local brewpub a few weeks ago where a well-known local chef was making his famous spaghetti sauce for a limited time. The deep red sauce called out for a red wine, so that’s what I asked for even thought my only choice was the seldom-ordered house wine.
It wasn’t an exceptional wine, but it was better than my other choices for that particular meal and when I got the bill I discovered the wine’s cost: $4.75. Gosh, I haven’t paid that little for a glass of wine in years!
At that price there was no way I was going to get the pairing the pasta called out for. If only they’d brought in some better wines and raised the price! I would buy more wine at the higher price (assuming the higher quality, of course) and dine there more often, too.
The Bargain Wine Curse
This isn’t the only situation I’ve encountered where the wine price isn’t high enough. I spoke at a symposium about Italian wine last year and one session featured a group of sommeliers from high end New York restaurants talking about their trade. One of the panelists explained his job as follows.
The people who come to my famous restaurant, he said, want to have a good time and they want to spend a lot of money on wine. Spending a lot of money on a bottle of wine is part of the luxury dining experience they come for. My role is to make sure that we have a lot of very expensive wines for them to buy. No kidding. That’s what he said and when I thought about it, I decided he might be right for his specific restaurant and its high-roller customers.
The particular focus of the symposium was on wines from the South of Italy and at one point I asked the sommeliers how these wineries could be more successful in the restaurant space? If I was at a winemaking conference I think I would have got an answer about viticulture and winemaking practices and if it was a wine marketing meeting the answer would have looked at branding and positioning.
But instead the answer from one of the somm’s was quite different. If they want to get wine in my restaurant, they have to do something to make it more expensive. Most of the wines are inexpensive and my customers want to spend more than that on wine.
Wow. I guess this explains why the restaurant reviews in the Times sometimes make a note when a wine list features a number of affordable wines, where affordable sometimes means $100 or less depending upon the type of restaurant! Do you suppose there are some diners who avoid restaurants with relatively affordable wines?
And so, as the subtitle of my last book suggested, it’s complicated and this is the first in an irregular series of columns that will explore different sides of the wine price question. As you can see, it is not just a question of wine mark-ups but also an issue of which wines are on the menu, since some choices are by their nature cheaper or more expensive.
With Andrea’s encouragement, I am going to put together a couple of columns that look at restaurant wine prices in theory and in practice and report on interesting research done by a Master of Wine.
I would like to test the hypothesis that under certain circumstances a restaurant will benefit from lowering its wine prices either by reducing the mark-up or by intentionally including types of wines that are less expensive (from less famous regions, for example — see Jancis Robinson’s FT column on under-rated wine regions).
I am reaching out to Wine Economist readers for help. I am looking for real world evidence about the impact of different wine price strategies. Can you suggest “natural experiments” that can shed light on this question? Or do you have relevant personal experience as a sommelier, restaurant owner or wine consumer that you’d be willing to share? If so, then please use the comments section below.
Too high or too low? That reminds me of a tune from the 1940s. Enjoy!