Ten Years of Open That Bottle Night

Photo OTBN2009By Sue Veseth, Contributing Editor

In 2009, a group of people with a love of wine and connections to the University of Puget Sound decided to celebrate Open That Bottle Night. Our wines on that February evening included a sparkling wine and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington State, a classic Bordeaux, a Chateauneuf du Pape, a California port-style wine, and a Sauternes. The only “rule” of our gathering was that each participant had to bring a story with his or her wine.

At that first OTBN dinner, we knew we were on to something exciting. Open That Bottle Night was an opportunity for our core group — Mike and Sue, Ken and Rosemary, Ron and Mary, Richard and Bonnie — to get together to share wine, food, and, stories.

OTBN logoOver the years, our OTBN celebrations have included additional friends. A few times, one or two people from the core were unable to attend because of work or family needs. Some years, we met at someone’s home for an elegant dinner. Other years, we met at restaurants (with our own wine, of course). We even held potluck dinners for OTBN.

We have toured the world on OTBN, with wines from Washington State, Oregon, California, Arizona, Okanagan Valley in Canada, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Hungary, China, and South Africa.

The rule of wine-and-a-story is still the centerpiece of our OTBN. As expected, most of the wine stories have included special people: My mentor (or parent or boss or friend) gave me this. This was my engagement (or wedding) wine. This wine is from the birth year of my child. We visited with the winemaker at this winery. A wine merchant we trust recommended this wine.

Photo OTBN2019By coincidence, but not by design, our wine selections and stories have complemented each other. This year, with a decade of OTBN experience, a theme of “firsts and lasts” developed with our wines:

  • Sorelle Bronca Brut Prosecco — Mike thought this was the last bottle in his stash of this beautiful Prosecco, but there may be another one or two.
  • La Grande Dame Champagne Brut 1989 — For Ken, the Champagne “was the last of a four bottles I bought from a London wine merchant soon after moving there in 1992. They were the most expensive bottles of anything we had bought up to that point but as you know, I was always on the lookout for the 1989 vintage because Rosemary and I were married that year. Of course, I wish now that we had bought more.”
  • Ramsay Mouvedre 1995 Napa — For Ron, this wine “represents the last bottle of booty Mary and I brought home from our twice annual trips to Napa from 1991-2002. We always brought home to Connecticut some of our favorite tastings from these trips, and this bottle is the last of those souvenirs.”
  • DiStefano Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 Columbia Valley — This was the last bottle from the first full case of wine that Bonnie and Richard purchased. “I think we were all surprised that a Washington Cabernet had held up so well,” Richard said. “That bodes well for our collections!”
  • Andrew Will Sorella 2007 Horse Heaven Hills — For Ron and Mary, this wine was a “first” because it is their favorite Andrew Will wine. It also was the last bottle in a case of Sorella they purchased when it was released.
  • Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape 2014 —This was the first bottle of the first case of wine that Bonnie and Richard purchased on a futures basis. Maybe not quite ready to drink but a double-first!
  • Dow’s Vintage Port 1994 — This was the first bottle out of a case Ken bought in London. “I have been eager to try it but decided to wait until its 25th birthday to try the first bottle,” he said.
  • Armagnac Napoleon J. Dupeyron Condom c. 1955 —Sue liberated this bottle from her parents when they down-sized. Jacques-François Ryst of Ryst Dupeyron said it dates from about 1955.

“I find it uncanny and wonderful how each year a collective story emerges from our individual wine contributions,” Ron said. “In vino veritas — and narrative!”

At a time when we lament that we are glued to our devices for interaction with family, friends, and colleagues, Open That Bottle Night gives us an opportunity to gather together to share, talk, eat, and drink. The beauty of OTBN is that your event can be as over-the-top or as modest as you want; it’s yours. Even better, the evening reinforces and strengthens long-standing friendships.

Big Apple Report: Where’s Washington [Wine]?

Waldo is easier to find than Washington wine in NYC.

Lettie Teague wrote a Wall Street Journal column back in 2010 called “Stalking the Wines of Washington.” In it she complained about her difficulty finding Washington wines in the New York City area. There’s just no demand, she was told, so wine shops don’t bother with Washington wines.

The Incredible Story

That’s incredible, I thought as I read Lettie’s story, since so many Washington wines are both very good (served at White House dinners, we are told) and very good values, too. Hard to believe that smart New Yorkers aren’t interested in these wines! So I decided to do a little fieldwork on the question during my recent East Coast speaking tour to see if the situation has changed.

OK, am I the only one who thinks visiting out-of-town wine shops is a fun way to spend the day? In this case I headed for the Morrell & Co store in Rockefeller Center and the Sherry Lehmann shop a few blocks away. Two wine shops is a very small sample size, so this study isn’t statistically significant, but these are the flagships of the region’s wine fleet, so surely they reveal something. Here’s what I found.

Both stores were smaller than I expected given their fame  — I guess I didn’t factor in Manhattan retail floor space costs when I imagined what they would look like. But the number of bottles isn’t as important as the quality of the selection (that’s the key to Costco’s wine selling success).

New York State of Wine

My attempt to find Washington red wines in these stores was not very successful. I managed to locate a wine from Betz Family Winery at Morrell and a modestly priced red blend from Claar Cellars at Sherry Lehmann. And that was it for Washington reds. I might have missed a bottle or two (I blame my bifocals), but even if I did the selection was pretty limited. I didn’t check the white wines — maybe there were more over there.

There were plenty of French and Italian wines. Sherry Lehmann’s Burgundy selection made my mouth water and my credit card cry. Lots of great wines from Bordeaux, too. But where was the Washington wine section? Nowhere. No California wine territory, either. They were all grouped together as “American wines,” suggesting that Sherry Lehmann’s customers might be more interested in the fine points of French geography than domestic wine terroir.  And apparently almost completely uninterested in Washington. Why?

Supply Side Theory

I talked a bit with a friend who knows New York wine business pretty well and we came up with a couple of theories. Maybe it is a supply-side problem — distribution?

Yes, I suppose that could be the case. Distribution inefficiencies usually affect the “middle market” the most. Iconic wines (and I’d put the Betz wine in this category) get distribution and so do larger volume wines (Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Crest, etc), but in-between producers (like Claar Cellars) get squeezed out.

As you can see, my “small n” obversations aren’t completely consistent with a supply-side explanation, although you cannot rule it out, either. So what about demand?

Demand Side Theory

Maybe the demand just isn’t there as the shop owners told Lettie Teague. So why not? Well, here’s where a second set of observations is useful. While I was looking for Washington wines I also kept an eye out for Oregon Pinot Noir. And, while the Washington wines were all but invisible, I discovered a handful of interesting Oregon Pinots in each store.

So now the question gets more interesting. Why is Oregon part of the New York state of wine but not Washington? Here my NYC friend (who is a Washington wine fan) offered another theory: Oregon stands for something concrete in the crowded New York market, but Washington doesn’t.

When you think of Oregon wine you think of Pinot Noir because that’s its signature wine variety and demand-side market focus. But what do you think of when you think of Washington? Well, that’s the problem because Washington makes so many great wines but lacks a signature variety or style. I’ve written about this situation before and I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but you can see how it can be a demand side problem.

Every NYC customer who asks for Oregon wine is probably thinking Pinot, but if ten customers ask for Washington wine they are unlikely to request the same wines or types of wines or grape varieties. It’s easy to see how a critical customer mass for Oregon Pinot Noir might appear but not for any particular Washington wine.

The Gravity Theory

A final theory comes from the economics literature — you might call it the “home court advantage” theory but technically it is based on the “gravity model” that is used to analyze international trade patterns. The gravity model holds that geographical proximity is a strong predictor of trade patterns — the closer countries are to one another the stronger the force of  “economic gravity” that pulls their economies together.

I see the home court advantage at work here within Washington State and it is widely observed that while the wine industry is global, wine consumption has a strong local bias. If this theory applies to the New York case, then it suggest that Europe is New York’s home court and that the pull of French gravity is especially strong. Given the many different languages that fill conversations on cosmopolitan New York City streets, this doesn’t seem like a crazy theory at all.

Convergence Zone

A quick analysis of the Morrell and Sherry-Lehmann websites reinforces my on-the-scene observations and adds more data since the warehouse selection is so much bigger than the Manhattan stores.

I found more Washington wines in the online stores, but I was still surprised by the relatively  limited selection. And I was surprised as well that Washington and Oregon had about the same number of wines on the sales lists despite Washington’s vastly greater number of wineries and total production. Burgundy (1122 wines on the Sherry-Lehmann site) has many more wines than California (612), Oregon (31) or Washington (30).

The particular wines listed on the Sherry Lehmann site suggest that the distribution theory is part of the explanation. More high volume Chateau Ste Michelle and Columbia Crest wines and some famous name icons, but a thinner middle market selection. It looks to me like all three forces are at work here, making this a particularly complex and difficult situation.


Readers: use the comments section below to provide your own observations and theories.

Washington Brands vs Brand Washington

Lettie Teague’s column in today’s Wall Street Journal provokes a post on Washington wine’s identity crisis.

Teague writes in “Stalking the Wines of Washington” that the Washington wine industry has expanded rapidly in the last few years and that there are many great wines and great wine values. Yet Washington wines are hard to buy (she had trouble finding them in New York wine shops) and hard to sell (she quotes several winemakers in this regard, including Chris Camarda of Andrew Will, who is holding back wine and reducing capacity by 40%). What’s the problem?

I Can Get it for you Wholesale

Well, as in most cases, it is not a single thing but a confluence of forces at work. Although she says that fine wines from Washington have a reputation for good value, Teague suggests that many are currently over-priced relative to Napa Valley products. Judging from my email inbox, the reason for this is that a lot of Napa producers are selling off their wines at deeply-discounted prices.

The typical deal I am offered is “limited time only” 50% off the retail price plus discounted shipping. A great deal, except I can sometimes find even lower prices on these wines at local stores. The wholesale prices must be rock-bottom if wineries can do better with these low revenue direct sales. Teague writes that

One Washington winemaker lamented to me, “We can’t compete when Pahlmeyer Cabernet that used to be $90 a bottle is now $45 a bottle.” And so, while the quality has never been higher—Washington has had three excellent vintages (2006, 2007 and 2008)—the wines are getting harder and harder to find in stores outside of Washington state.

[Interestingly, some of the offers have six bottle limits — a psychological ploy in most cases, I think, to make customers believe that surplus wines are really quite scarce. Wine people tell me that it works every time.]

I think that Washington wines are still a great value, given their high quality, but deep discounting by the competition is never a good thing for producers.

Napa Valley vs Columbia Valley

The lack of a strong regional wine identity is a second issue that Teague identifies (she also cites the small scale of most Washington producers as a disadvantage). Everyone thinks they know what Napa Valley wine is (although it is a large and very varied AVA that produces lots of different types and styles of wine). Napa was a strong brand.

What is Washington wine?  Washington apples have a strong identity and Washington cherries, too. But Washington wine — not so much. A stronger, more prestigious identity could be a real advantage, especially in this economic climate, Teague notes.

… Napa Valley has just done a much better job of marketing itself, according to Marty Clubb, whose L’Ecole 41 Winery in Walla Walla is probably one of the best known and oldest (circa 1983) wineries in the state. “Nobody really knows where our wines are from. People recognize our brand but not as a Washington-state winery.”

Washington has well-known wine brands at nearly every price point from Columbia Crest to Quilceda Creek, but there is no well-established Brand Washington. This is an issue that Paul Gregutt identified in his terrific book,  Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide (watch for a second edition on bookstore shelves this fall). He interviewed leaders in the Washington wine industry about their vision for Brand Washington and, while most considered this an important issue, no consensus emerged.

I’ve heard that Allen Shoup (the godfather of Washington wine: former head of Chateau Ste Michelle, now the driving force at Long Shadows) wanted to promote the idea of the Columbia Valley as Washington’s equivalent of Napa Valley — building the Columbia Valley brand to compete with California.

But this plan ran into a collective action problem as individual producers invested in their own private brands and sub-AVA brands instead. I’m sure some buyers today see Columbia Valley as a generic designation, not the prestige brand originally envisioned. And I’m sure a lot of people don’t associate it with any particular place (some people still confuse Washington  State with Washington DC; maybe they think the Columbia Valley is in … Columbia!).

Although the lack of regional identity may be a serious issue in the long run, I think other problems are more pressing right now. After all, most of those deep discount emails I’m getting aren’t coming from Washington, they’re being sent out by famous wineries in famous Napa Valley.  A strong identity surely helps, but can’t completely compensate for competitive market forces.


One area where Washignton’s wine identity is strong is in Riesling. Riesling Rendezvous — sponsored by Chateau Ste Michelle and Mosel’s Dr. Loosen, begins tomorrow. Riesling makers from around the world will gather near Seattle to discuss the problems and opportunities they face. Look for a Riesling Rendezvous post in the near future.

Wine Festivals Uncorked


Jancis Robinson and Wine Economist Mike Veseth at the IPNC. Wine Festivals draw celebrity wine critics, who taste, talk, sign books, pose for photos and lend credibility to the event.

Wine festivals have become big business. So big that the Wall Street Journal publishes a guide to upcoming festivals in each Friday’s edition. Click here to see their online August festival listing.There are lots of different wine events, but I’m not talking about charity wine walkabouts here, where you make a small donation, get a few drink tickets and visit tables where random bottles of donated wine are poured. The modern wine festival is a lot more focused and sophisticated and designed to engage wine enthusiasts on a different level.

International Pinot Noir Celebration

The International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in McMinnville, Oregon is a good example of the state of the art in wine festivals today. Sue and I attended the grand tasting last Sunday (a chance to sample dozens of Pinot Noir in a beautiful but hot outdoor setting), but the real deal for serious Pinot lovers is the full three day festival. For a fee of about $900 per person (not including lodging) you spend your days in tastings, seminars and vineyard tours and your nights under the stars at grand dinners.

The festival attracted winemakers from Oregon, California, Washington, Canada, France, Austria, Australia and New Zealand — quite an international lineup in a recession year.

I’m told that about 400 people attend the big festival — many of them come back year after year — and I would guess that another 300 or so came to the grand tasting on Sunday, so the festival’s total budget must approach a  half-million dollars. More than enough to pay the expenses of wine critics and celebrities (like Jancis Robinson above).

What’s In It For Me?

It is interesting to consider what brings all these people together? Yes, yes, I know that it must ultimately be about buying and selling wine, but that doesn’t fully explain it. No wine typically changes hands at events like this and there are probably more cost effective ways to market wine, from the supplier standpoint, and cheaper ways for consumers to fill their glasses, too. So what’s really going on?

One reason winemakers travel so far to attend these festivals is to communicate with other producers and to taste and compare their wines. Although I still don’t fully understand it, I have observed a subtle kind of dialogue when winemakers taste together. Information about taste, technique and status are all transmitted in the glass. Professors go to conferences and communicate by reading papers. Winemakers go to festivals and taste each others’ wines. It is easy to see who has the more sensible approach to intra-industry communication.

I suspect that there was a lot of producer dialogue at the Pinot festival because the wines that we tasted did not have much in common except the genetic pedigree of the grapes used to make them. Although the world wine market is moving to a lingua franca based upon grape varietal labeling (Chardonnay not Chablis, Pinot Noir not Burgundy) it is very clear that wines made from Pinot Noir grapes can have extraordinarily different textures, flavors and aromas. depending upon who makes them, how and where.

The Old World naming system (based on place not varietal) sure has its merits in the wineglass where terroir is actually experienced — too bad it works so poorly in the cluttered supermarket aisle when wines are bought and sold.

I met more than one winemaker who told me basically that she came to Oregon to prove something — to prove that good Pinot Noir could be made in X  where X = Oregon, Austria, California, Australia — fill in the place — only Burgundy has nothing to prove.

Hemispheric Exchange

A good deal of business gets done whenever producers come together, as you might expect. Partnerships, consulting services, distribution agreements and so forth are frequently arranged.  The McCrone vineyard wines made by Ken Wright Cellars and Ata Rangi are a good case study of the sort of  connections that probably could only happen in face-to-face meetings at a wine festival.

Don and Carole McCrone

Don and Carole McCrone

Don McCrone is a distinguished retired politics professor turned distinguished active winegrower. His vineyard outside of Carlton, Oregon  produces amazing fruit, which winemaker Ken Wright turns into a wonderful single-vineyard bottling. Don and Carole McCrone met the  winemakers from New Zealand’s famous Ata Rangi winery at IPNC a few years ago and were encouraged by them (while tasting each others’ wines, no doubt) to scout out vineyard properties in Martinborough.

Now the McCrones spend half of the year in each hemisphere supplying grapes to both Ken Wright and Ata Rangi for “McCrone Vineyard” wines. Are there any other winegrowers with vineyard designated wines in both hemispheres? It is an extreme example of the sort of cross-fertilization that can happen behind the scenes at major wine festivals.

Relationships not Transactions

I think that the most important function of wine festivals is to establish and build relationships. I always say that wine is good, but wine and a story is better. Wine and a relationship (even a superficial one with the grower, the winemaker, or other wine enthusiasts) is best of all. Doug Tunnell, winemaker at Oregon’s Brick House, explained to me that he brings his wines to IPNC every year to maintain contact with the people who attend. I got the impression that it isn’t so much about selling wine as honoring  relationships.  I think elite makers recognize that investing in relationships with customers (and with wine critics and journalists and all the others who attend these events) pays dividends down the road. Winemaking and relationship-building both require a long-term perspective.

The fact that many people come back to IPNC year after year suggests that they value the relationships, too, both with the producers and with each other. I have written that wine always tastes best when it is shared with others who enjoy and appreciate it. This may be especially true with festivals like IPNC, which tend to attract participants who are especially focused on a particular wine or region.

What I Think I Have Learned

So here is what I think I have learned from my fieldwork at wine festivals so far, both at IPNC and elsewhere, on both sides of the table, both pouring and receiving wine.

Wine festivals aren’t really about the wine, they are about the people, the conversations and the relationships. The role of the wine is to bring the people together and to give them something to share in a way that is impossible to recreate electronically.

Wine, or really the sharing of wine,  is a personal  relational experience in an otherwise increasingly impersonal transactional world.  That people seem to appreciate this sort of experience (and seek it out, even at high monetary cost and even in a deep recession) suggests something about its scarcity, don’t you think?

Prime Time for Fine Wine?

The Wall Street Journal reports that USDA Prime beef is now available in your supermarket meat case. Bad news for your cholesterol count, perhaps, but maybe good news for supermarket wine sales. Do you think it will last?

Steak-Out at Ruth’s Chris

USDA Prime beef is usually almost impossible to get outside of restaurants. Prime is the grade reserved for the top 1-3% of all beef — it is sort of like beef with a 93+ rating from Robert Parker. Fine dining establishments, including steak houses like Ruth’s Chris (which advertises itself as “The Best Prime Steakhouse Restaurant”), pay a premium for the limited supplies of this top quality beef. It is unusual, therefore, to find much Prime beef in the regular retail food distribution chain (USDA Choice is usually the top grade you will find at your store). It is especially rare to discover choice cuts like Filet Mignon in a supermarket meat case.

So then why did some shoppers recently find USDA Prime ribeye steaks at Costco for $9.99 per pound? The answer, according to the WSJ article, is the slump in high end restaurant sales. (I don’t know how Ruth’s Chris in particular is doing, but the fine dining industry overall is taking a beating. due to the economic crisis.)

The recession is bad news for restaurants and for the businesses that supply them. I have already written about the effect on wine.  Some hard-to-get, winery-list and restaurant-only wines are now relatively easy to find — a few have even shown up at Costco — because distributors are diverting the wine that restaurants won’t buy to their other selling channels. The same thing, apparently, has happened to Prime beef.

Prime Time on the Wine Wall

Some of the folks who used to splurge on expensive restaurant meals are now sometimes treating themselves to  fancy home-cooked meals, which can be less expensive even when they use similar ingredients because high restaurant labor costs are supplied in house for free (or lower cost, anyway, if you have to pay your children to be waiters, prep-cooks or dishwashers).  Prime beef and excellent wines are now more readily available to these home chefs, as the WSJ article indicates and, while they may be expensive in an absolute sense (compared to Kraft Macaroni Dinner, for example) they are still cheap relative to the restaurant experience. Good food and wine at home can cushion the recession’s hard knocks.

My friend Patrick, wine manager at a local upscale supermarket, has a front row seat as these shoppers assemble ingredients for a special meal. His  Wine Wall is located strategically at the corner of Meat, Fish and Produce, so aspiring gourmet chefs inevitably pass through his territory once or twice and he is happy to help them select a nice wine to complement their home creations.

Patrick thinks that this fine-dining shift from restaurants to residences may not be a temporary phenomenon. People are educating themselves about food, ingredients, cooking methods — and wine of course — and they may find themselves drawn more deeply into the home dining experience. As they become more skilled and knowledgeable they may begin to identify themselves as “foodies” who enjoy planning menus, shopping for and preparing food, not just eating it, and change their fine dining behavior for good.

I’m sure this won’t happen to everyone everywhere, but I think I agree with Patrick that a noticeable structural shift could occur. If sustained, this trend could have important implications for several industries, including wine. A major shift in sales from restaurants to supermarkets, specialty stores and big box retailers would force some winemakers to reevaluate their business plans and perhaps shake up the whole wine market.

Now, where are my car keys? I feel an urge to go to Costco …

Santa Margherita Syndrome

Many articles have appeared recently advising wine consumers on “trading down” strategies for the recession — where to find the best values and bargains as the market slump continues. (Thanks to my crack team of research assistants — Michael, David and Tom — for your tips on this topic.)

One of the best pieces I’ve read comes from Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher at the Wall Street Journal: 10 ways to save money ordering wine at restaurants. All their advice is timely, but rule #6 really caught my eye:

6. Never order Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio. We don’t mean to pick on Santa Margherita. We know many people like it and that’s fine. But because so many people like it, it is routinely one of the most outrageously priced wines on the list.

Nothing personal, Dottie and John said, it’s just supply and demand plus a certain bandwagon effect that seems to afflict wine drinkers when confronted with a complicated and uncertain set of choices.

We note it here only as a classic example of this: If you stay within your comfort zone, ordering only wines you already know, you will be punished for it, price-wise. In addition, no wine is going to seem like a good value to you when you know you could buy it at a local store for half the price or less. That’s why it’s so important to focus on labels or kinds of wines that you wouldn’t otherwise see. …  Remember: There is value in tasting something new.

Sensible advice, although not always easy advice to follow in practice given the high cost of restaurant wine. Everyone wants to find that delightful unexpected bargain, but no one really likes paying the bill for a wine experiment that disappoints.  So restaurants and wine consumers alike seem to find themselves drawn to a small set of “usual suspects.”

Demand and Supply

Wine & Spirits magazine surveys restaurants each year to try to discover  trends both in general and in specific segments of the market. This year’s poll (see the April 2009 issue) provides early data on how the recession is affecting wine sales and some of the strategies that restaurants are trying to deal with this increasingly serious problem.

W&S provides a lot of information about what successful restaurants are doing to cope with the weak economy.  One unexpected implication of the survey seems to be this: 

Always try to sell customers Santa Margherita Pinto Grigio.

The W&S editors do not advise this, of course (they are very careful in this regard — they just report the findings); it just seems to be restaurant conventional wisdom.

W&S asks restaurants to identify the wines that they offer by the bottle or serve by the glass and then publishes the names of the most-reported products.  The most listed wine-by-the-glass, for example, is Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay (11.1 responses per 100 restaurant replies), which sold for an average price of $12.67 per glass in 2008.  Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio was #6 on the list (number six again … spooky), reported by 6.7 per 100 restaurants.  It sold for an average price of $14.40 per glass in 2008.

A quick internet search reveals that Santa Margherita often sells for around $20 per bottle retail, which suggests a wholesale price of $14-$15 — suspiciously close to the $14.40 average per glass tariff.  You can begin to see why it would be a popular restaurant choice.  And why Dottie and John’s number one rule is …

1. Skip wine by the glass. Restaurateurs like to make enough on a single glass to pay for a whole bottle, which is great for them but not so great for you.

W&S lists Santa Margherita as the number one wine in both the Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio and the Italian wine categories.  The average per bottle restaurant price was $52, which indicates a somewhat higher mark up over wholesale than the usual restaurant rule of thumb.  All of which makes me think that wine consumers need to become a bit better educated about wine economics because it is pretty plain that restaurants have been hitting the books on how to use demand and supply to preserve profit in these unsettled economic times.

What Should I Order?

So where are the values on restaurant wine lists?  The simple answer is that there is no simple  answer (apart from Dottie and John’s good advice).  The W&S poll asked restaurants to list wines under $25 per bottle and the most frequent response was Cooperidge White Zin and Chardonnay, $24 average price.  Cooperidge is a Gallo restaurant brand.  Interestingly, it appeared in just 1.9 per 100 responses.

The number two and three bargain wines were both Ste Michelle Wine Estate products from Washington State — Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling ($24 / 0.7 responses per 100) and 14 Hands Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($21.50 / 0.7 responses per 100).

No very strong conclusions can be drawn from this data but they do suggest that (1) there is no one wine or brand that restaurants consistently go to for the value-seeking customers, so you will have to explore the wine list carefully to find what you are looking for, but (2) it might be smart to include Washington State wines in your treasure hunt.

No Wine Before Its Time

“We will sell no wine before its time.” That was the slogan of a famous Paul Masson winery advertising campaign. (See note at the end of this post.)  But a lot of wine is sold before it has reached its peak.

What Time is It?

And that’s a problem for both consumers and producers.  Immature wine is sort of like the flat-pack furniture they sell at Ikea — all the pieces are there, it is up to the consumer to take them home and complete assembly. Wine buyers are supposed to take immature but age-worthy wine home, stash it under the stairs or in a climate-controlled wine storage appliance, and remember to bring it out when the time is right.

(By the way, if you have any of the pry-top Paul Masson carafes pictured here aging under the stairs … well, you might not want to wait any longer to pop the lid …)

Unfortunately there are a lot of differences between fine wine and a flat-pack  antique finish Ikea Aspelund bedside table.  I suspect that most people knock together their Ikea products soon after purchase, so they know pretty quickly if all the pieces fit.  Disappointment, if there is any, is soon realized and resolved.

Wine is a different situation completely.  You can’t tell if a bottle of wine is sound (uncorked, untainted) just be looking at it. Every type of closure system has its flaws, as George Taber has explained. So aging wine is a kind of crap shoot.  Even a professional can’t be sure that the wine cellar is full of good wine getting better or bad wine fading to oblivion.  Each bottle is a mystery until opened.

Now maybe you know all about aging wine, but I’m really an amateur and I have no confidence in my ability to store wine properly and pull it from the cellar at its peak.  I am not at all sure that I can tell when “it’s time.”  More often than not I find that I have waited too long to open those “special bottles.”

Not that this always matters: most wine produced in the world today isn’t really designed with cellar aging in mind.

Time is Money

Why do wineries sell immature wine and leave it to amateurs like me to age it?  Why don’t they store it properly and release it at or near its peak?  The answer, of course, is that time is money.  Few wineries can completely ignore the economic cost of holding their wines in bottle or barrel until they are mature.  The incentive to market what I have called Chateau Cash Flow is very strong.

The result is that most wineries intentionally produce wines that are ready to drink when still quite young.  I find nothing wrong with this when done well.  Others sell their wine before its time and cross their fingers — hoping (often in vain) that consumers will delay consumption until the wine has more fully matured.

One consequence of this practice is the frequent disappointment consumers experience with fine wines, especially  in restaurants.  Some restaurants can afford to age rare and unusual wines and serve them at their peak.  Most, however, find it necessary to sell them quickly, to produce that cash flow, with sometimes unfortunate results.  It isn’t that these wines are bad, it is only that they are expensive (because of restaurant mark-ups) and often disappointing (because they years away from full maturity).

The cost of money is often the root of the problem — wineries and restaurants find it too expensive to properly age fine wines.  Money is nearly free today, however — if you can get it.  It is the limited availability of credit that is the current constraint.  I suspect that we will see lots of product pushed into the wine value chain, using cash flow to compensate for the lack of available credit.  This fact promises opportunity for the few and likely disappointment for the many.

Open That Bottle Night

Amateurs like me tend to be too patient (imagine that!) and let fine wine sit in the cellar too long.  How can we avoid the curse of letting our best wines creep over the hill? Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, the wine critics at the Wall Street Journal, have an answer.  For the last ten years they have been promoting Open That Bottle Night (it’s on Saturday 28 February this year).

OTBN is an excuse to break out those special bottles and drink them before they fade away.  It isn’t a systematic solution to the problem of time and money, but it is a reasonable personal response. I encourage my readers to celebrate OTBN this year.  Wineries may sell wine before its time — and many of us may drink them either way too soon or well past their prime — but there is no reason not to try to break this pattern.


Here is one of the original Paul Masson “sell no wine” commercials, featuring celebrity spokesman Orson Wells.

Here is an out-take, with an obviously inebriated Wells reading the lines.