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Restaurant wine: Pay close attention

By By Stan Torgerson / wine columnist
Aug. 7, 2002
There is nothing wrong with a restaurateur making a profit on the wines he offers. It's the American way.
But there is a vast difference between fair wine prices and gouging the customer. And there are just too many restaurant owners who have forgotten that difference or who have chosen to ignore it.
They'll tell you they don't have much demand for wine and that's the reason their list is both short and nondescript. Why tie up money in wine if it doesn't sell?
Of course it doesn't sell when it is outrageously priced. The general public may be somewhat naive about wine, but they are not fools. Nor are their budgets unlimited, no matter how much a bottle or glass might contribute to the pleasure of dining out.
A fair restaurant markup should be about 11/2 to 1 when compared with the retail price of that same bottle. In other words it is acceptable that a bottle of wine you buy at your favorite package store for $12 is priced in a restaurant at $18. There are waiters to be paid, glasses to be washed or replaced if broken and bottles to be replaced if the wine inside has gone bad. On rare occasions I have even bitten the bullet and paid two to one. But not often.
The average wine store marks up their wines from about 33 to 40 percent. The restaurant that bought the $12 bottle of wine paid about $8 for it wholesale. At $18 their profit is already 2 to 1 or better.
I refuse to buy wine in a restaurant that is priced $24 when I have it in my cellar for $12 and I know the wholesale price is $8. Yet there are restaurants that go even further. They mark up three times. There is a famous restaurant in Jackson that had a bottle of very nice wine on their list that I had in my cellar for $25. Their price was $85. Needless to say if they were waiting for me to buy it, they still own it. I made do with iced tea.
If you buy wine at your package store make a mental note of what you paid. The next time you go to a restaurant that has that same wine on their list but priced two to three times that amount, we recommend you also try the iced tea.
In Oxford there is a very fine restaurant called the City Grocery. On a football weekend last fall when we had dinner there we noticed on almost every table a bottle of wine. The wine list told us why. They were marking their wines up not more than 11/2 to 1 and in some cases even less.
They were making their profit on volume, not trying get every penny they could from their customers. It was also obvious from the wait we endured that the public was responding and the City Grocery was doing as much business as they could possibly handle.
But if wine by the bottle is no bargain at too many restaurants, wine by the glass can be outright banditry. A bottle of wine contains 26 ounces. The average pour of wine by the glass is about five ounces. Some a little more. Some, unfortunately, a little less. But we'll settle for five ounces.
Using that as our standard the average bottle of wine will yield about five pours. Yet many restaurants, including some in Meridian, will charge $7 or $8 for a pour of very average wines which cost them no more than $10 and in some cases less if they are pouring wines such as Turning Leaf or Woodbridge or even the popular Kendall-Jackson.
Do your math. That one bottle will generate up to $40 when sold by the glass. I have seen better wines, the $20 retail wines ($15 wholesale) offered at as much as $9.50 by the glass. Would $5 per glass be a fair price for the average house wine? In my opinion, yes. Not many restaurant owners would agree.
And this type of cavalier pricing has led to inflated corkage fees as well. If we are going to a restaurant and have a special bottle of wine we wish to share with friends we expect to be charged a corkage fee to open the wine and provide the glasses. That's only fair. We do not expect that fee to be as much as $10, or even $15, however.
After all, the fee is pure profit because the restaurant has no real cost involved. I am always happy to pay $5 or $6 for the service but it is not reasonable to charge me two or thee times that much for the privilege of drinking my own wine. And don't say they have to do that because if I didn't bring my own I might buy wine from them. Remember the iced tea?
Last, but not least, if the restaurant does not offer a wine list which includes choices of various cabernet sauvignons, merlots, zinfandels, Australian shiraz, chardonnay and sauvignon blancs, perhaps 15 or 20 different wines in a variety of price categories, then it is likely the management knows very little about wine. Under that circumstance asking a waiter, even the owner, for a wine recommendation to go with your meal is like the proverbial halt asking the blind for directions.
Wine is a wonderful accompaniment to a meal. It will make the food so much better. Just know enough so that it doesn't make your wallet worse.