Food & Wine Thursdays: Anatomy of a Wine List

I was talking to a friend after his recent trip to Manhattan and he was lamenting the wine list at this otherwise very good restaurant where they want for their one modest splurge of their trip. His complaint wasn’t to do with the size or even the breadth of offerings on the list, but the fact that it was essentially a trophy list with a slew of well-known regions and producers, varietals, and verticals of the type of big-swinging-dick wines that would theoretically get the editors of Wine Spectator hard, while the offerings for under $g0 a bottle were scant and uninteresting. The sheer crappiness of the list for his purposes prompted my friend to go a couple doors down to the local bottle shop, select an excellent bottle, and happily pay the $30 corkage. Such was the state of their list.

This conversation led to a discussion of exactly what makes a good wine list. These are the guidelines we came up with:

  • Breadth is better than depth. It’s much better to be a 50 bottle list that has a broad array of wine regions, varietals, styles, and blends represented than to have pages and pages of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon and then a half-dozen wines listed under “other reds.” This even goes for a country or region-specific list. Just because you have an all-French list, doesn’t mean that it has to be an only Burgundy, Bordeaux and Cotes du Rhone list.
  • It doesn’t matter what your most expensive wine is, it matters what your least expensive wine is. There’s nothing wrong with having those trophy bottles on your list, but attention needs to be paid to those wines at the bottom. There are so many excellent wines from all over the world that, even with a 4-5x wholesale restaurant mark-up (which is already high, in my opinion), can be had for under 50 on a wine list. The problem is you have to seek these wines out as a buyer. It requires more thoughtful curation and requires the sommelier to do his or her job. My friend and I are both people who will happily pay $50-$70 for a bottle of wine at a restaurant that is truly unique, fun and complementary to the meal. We will not, however, pay $50 for a co-op Verdejo that’s marked up 6 times the wholesale price. To that end….
  • Keep your margins realistic. I don’t know wholesale prices for wines in Manhattan, but generally speaking European imports are significantly less expensive there than in California simply because of its proximity to Europe and because many importers are based in New York and New Jersey. Despite this, several of the less expensive wines I recognized were marked up five times their CALIFORNIA wholesale cost, which I would guess puts them at 5.5x their New York wholesale cost. The principal problem there isn’t the cost itself–I really don’t fault people for making as much money as they can for a good product–but that at that point you start to price yourself out of being able to realistically provide a good, remotely reasonable wine list. That $10 wholesale bottle of wine–which is the point where most wines start to shift from “good” to “interesting and distinctive”–would be a wine that retails for $15-$18, but would be on the wine list like the one we’re discussing for $50-$60. That’s a price disconnect that infuriates knowledgeable wine folks like myself.
  • Keep it bottom heavy. A wine list’s least expensive wine should be no more than 1.5 times the price of the average entree (ideally a little less) and the majority of the list should feature wines that are within two times the average entree price. This means, for your typical 30 dollar-entree fine dining restaurant, half of the list should be wines for $40-$60. The success of all but the most prestigious and/or tourist-trap restaurants depends upon repeat business and even those of us who might splurge on a great wine for a special occasion will not routinely buy $70 bottles of middling Burgundy.

I get that restaurants need to make money on wine to be prosperous and there are many legitimate reason why getting a bottle of wine out at a restaurants is and should be significantly more expensive than buying it at a wine shop. But a wine list needs to be free from cynicism and overt greed. If you are going to mark your wine up 500%, the quality and thoughtfulness of the list needs to reflect that premium we’re paying and it should also reflect the dining experience that goes along with it. Part of that margin is to help subsidize the army of waiters, white linen table cloths, and Riedel glasses which should accompany a $100 per person dinner. If it doesn’t match up, then you’re just another wine charlatan fleecing rich people who don’t know any better.

Which, if that’s a restaurant’s objective, then more power to it on its journey. But I certainly won’t be eating there.

For snark of a vaguely related variety, check out Justin’s classic deconstruction of Scott Pilgrim and Kick-Ass or Clint’s lament over the Twilight-ization of zombies.

About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
This entry was posted in Home of the Bizarre Rant, Wine & Cheese and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Food & Wine Thursdays: Anatomy of a Wine List

  1. Grandmother says:

    I enjoyed your comments about the cost for a sometime bad wine. Good job,your grandfather would be proud of your comments .

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