23 Sep 2010
Restaurant wine practices are a sour subject. Earlier in the year CNN.com ran a story on the top five “rip-offs” and restaurant wine prices came in on the list. Often with a 400% above wholesale markup, restaurants are passing off bad wine at high prices and often in inferior stemware with a less than knowledgeable staff. As I type this I can hear restaurant owners around the US complaining about high overhead, stemware breakage, and loss, there is obviously a more balanced way to sell wine.
It’s time to call out the good restaurant wine lists and put the bad ones on notice. Nothing speaks louder than the court of public opinion and we vote with our wallets. With this new series I hope to provide wine lovers a preview of area restaurant wine practices. With this information, you can make informed dining decisions. I don’t review food but stay tuned and we’ll explore the often seedy world of restaurant wine.
To keep things simple I’ll be looking at three basic elements, price, selection and presentation. I’ll evaluate each section and award a 5 point score (similar to how I review wine). Each restaurant will also receive an overall score.
I understand the need to make a profit. People go to restaurants for the experience, the atmosphere and the service. All these things cost money. Evaluation of a restaurant’s wine prices will be based on basic math and mark up; the greater the markup, the lower the score. If you’re trying to sell $10 Smoking Loon Pinot Noir for $40 per bottle, you’re going to score low. However, if you’re like one local restaurant who sells $12 Kiona Cabernet/Merlot blend for $12 – WOW! Personally, I think a good balance is three glass pours should approximately equal the bottle price, example: $25 bottle of Barrister Rough Justice…$8 per glass.
In a previous article I asked the question, “Does Size Matter?” When evaluating selection, the size of your menu will not be as impressive as how you use your menu. A good wine list will have local product, including some from the quality producers in our city, and wine that is appropriate for the food being served.
Presentation can make a big impression and can often justify higher prices. Somehow all seems justified when laying down $50 for a strip steak when surrounded by hip, swanky decoration, cool lighting, posh seating, and service oriented staff. The same is true with the wine list. When evaluating selection, I’ll take into consideration menu layout (and accuracy), stemware, staff knowledge, wine temperature (very important), and service.
Over time, I hope that these posts bring awareness to restaurants who take as much pride in their wine as they do in their food. Attention to the finer points listed above can be the catalyst to selling more wine and creating a refined dining experience.
AMBROSIA BISTRO AND WINE BAR
Ambrosia is a hip urban modern American restaurant tucked in a suburban strip mall on Argonne and Montgomery. They’ve recently been awarded the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for their wine list. The food is good and full of flavor. The atmosphere is nice, but it tough to get over the strip mall vibe (especially when sitting on the patio). The restaurant always a good choice for us but often overlooked considering some of the cool hot spots that have popped up downtown.
Here are some glass price examples that bring down the price score
- Clos du Bois Reserve Chardonnay: RETAIL $15, By the Glass price $9
- Manu Sauvignon Blanc: RETAIL $12, By the Glass price $7
- Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel: RETAIL $14, By the Glass price $7
- Barrister Rough Justice: RETAIL $20, By the Glass price $10
- Gozzo Malbec: RETAIL $15, By the glass price $7
The glass pours seem less inspired than their menu selection and seem to run at a 2 pours to retail (or less). Better pricing exists with the bottle sales.
- White Haven Pinot Noir: RETAIL $22, Bottle price $33
- Amavi Syrah: RETAIL $28, Bottle price $38
- Drew Bledsoe’s Doubleback: RETAIL: 85, Bottle price $100
- Mountain Dome Brut: RETAIL: RETAIL $16, Bottle price $25
Ambrosia boasts 120 different wines by the bottle. With their focus on American cuisine, the selection of Washington, California and Oregon wines appropriately dominate the list. There are occasional offerings from Italy and New Zealand and three French wines (including Moet and Chandon Champagne). The selection of reds is 2 to 1 over whites. Twelve area wines are on the list from six producers. A few more area producers on the menu would be nice to see, considering the scope of the selection. The menu includes helpful wine pairings with each menu item.
The menu is nicely laid out, easy to read and includes region and vintage to assist in informed decision making. The waiter was knowledgeable about the wine, responded appropriately to all our questions and offered additional wine pairings. The stemware was appropriate for the food prices (not top of the line, but very nice). The only piece of the presentation that was not top notch was the wine temperature. We ordered a 07 Fidelitas Merlot (Retail $28, Bottle price $39). The wine was served at room temperature, which was probably 72-73 degrees. At this temperature, red wine can fall apart a little and present more chewy than at an appropriate temperature of 63-66 degrees. A temperature controlled fridge for their wine or a quick chill would have made the presentation perfect.
Overall Wine List Score: 4/5
Ambrosia Bistro and Wine Bar has a fantastic wine list. The overall score was hurt by the lack of inspiration in the ‘by the glass pours’ and the inflated pricing. A few of the ‘glass pours’ could be at the $6 range. A handful of additional local producers could also be added to the list. These changes would make an already great list, one of the tops in the town.
9211 E Montgomery Ave, Spokane WA
27 Jul 2010
I recently visited the two lone Spokane restaurants that received a nod in the 2010 Wine Spectator “Restaurant Wine List Awards.” As I perused the lists, it got me thinking, “What makes a good wine list?” I refuse to pay for wine rags subscriptions like Spectator and Enthusiast when good information is available for free, so I went Googling (sort of like fishing but for information). After a few casts of the line, I pulled back some very interesting insights. I added my own ideas to compile my thoughts on what makes a good restaurant wine list.
If you’re looking for a rant on restaurant pricing visit Wine: Ripped Off and Ticked Off for a fun read (one of my most viewed and commented posts to date).
Size – It’s Not the Size of Your List It’s how You Use It
Sure, we’ve all heard this before, but when it comes to restaurant wine lists, size doesn’t matter. Actually, there comes a point when too big just hurts…to read. Restaurants need to balance inventory and overhead with service and selection. Too small and you’ll leave the customer feeling unsatisfied and longing for more. Too big and they’ll be overwhelmed and afraid to take it all in (yes, pun intended…I’ve got to make it interesting). I recently visited restaurants that fit into each of these categories. One was a local place that boasted a whopping 8 wines by the glass. To be honest it wasn’t the lack of selection that bothered me as much as the lack of consideration for the list. Put Beringer and Sutter Homes on your list and my chances of returning to your establishment are significantly reduced.
The second restaurant, (in the city of the rising bird) lured us with their impressive stature of over 3,000 bottles. Their “everyday” menu was a fine selection of flights and glass pours, but we had a group of 20 and wanted to order several bottles. The waitress returned with a wine “bible.” We sifted through the poorly organized list and attempted to decipher the layout. After several attempts and with some guidance from the waitress we made our selection. Not once, not twice, not three times, but four of our choices were “out of stock.” Finally we settled for several run of the mill selections that you could find at BevMo the next block down.
If you’ve got a small list, you need to work it. It needs to be well thought out and have some special attention paid to make it perform. If your list is well endowed, make sure you rein it in and present it in a way that is easy to handle. Clearly marked page headings, categories, and themes will make the experience more enjoyable. If you want to really stand out, you can go “high-tech” like this wine bar in New York City that has a full interactive bar where users can select by variety, region, price, and more!
Make Sure Your List is Dressed Appropriately
How does the saying go, “No white shoes after labor day?” Your wine list should be dressed appropriately. What I’m getting at is make sure the curtains match the drapes. If you’re a down to earth American fair place, don’t stock your wine list with French Bordeaux and Italian Super Tuscan and if you’re gourmet Italian, you may want to pay special attention and bring in some small lot wines from Trentino, Veneto and Tuscany. Yes, this will require some attention. No, you probably won’t be able to use the same distributor for everything.
Additionally, design a list that has specific wine and food pairings. I’ve really enjoyed restaurants that have suggested wine listings paired with each menu item. This, along with the tasting notes, gives me a sense of confidence that someone on the staff took special care to pair the two items together.
If I Wanted To Get Screwed I’d Rent a High Priced Hooker
My apologies for being so vulgar, but nothing says bend over more than seeing a bottle of Dancing Bull Zinfandel on a list for $30+. I understand the need to balance profits, overhead, storage and loss but gouging customers for a $10 retail / $6 wholesale bottle of wine is wrong. Many restaurants are starting to wise up as they see people order water or beer with their dinners. Personally, I’m impressed when I see an honest $15-$18 for that same bottle of Dancing Bull. At that price I’m more inclined to buy the bottle.
There is one brave restaurant in town that actually sells their wines by the bottle at retail. Bless their heart! I have no problem ordering a large calzone and a bottle of Kiona Cab/Merlot for only $12. As I looked through one of the Wine Spectator “Award” recipient lists from the area, I was very impressed at their price ratio. I randomly chose 10 wines and found that the majority were under the standard double mark up (average was $20 retail / $36 restaurant) however, a few were a little disproportionate in charge.
The Devil Is In the Details
Sweat the small stuff. Even if you’re a burger or pizza joint you should pay attention to your wine list. For those places I suggest going local and staying in an appropriate price range $15-$30 per bottle. Pay attention to the details. Make sure your list is up to date. You can put Bud Light or Apple Martini on a list and it pretty much never changes. Wine vintages and “stats” change with every new release. Your list should always include grape variety (Pinot Noir, Cab, Red Blend), year, producer, region (Napa, Alsace, Walla Walla) and of course price. You get bonus points if you’ve taken the time to offer tasting notes (preferably your own).
Other Random Tips for a Great Wine List
- Support your local wine scene – I recently visited New York City and not one restaurant carried wine from New York (in spite of the state being the fourth largest producer of wine in the country).
- Train your staff – Nothing is more frustrating than a wait staff that can tell their Pinot Noir from their Pinot Grigio. Take the time to bring your staff up to speed on the stereotypical food / wine pairings. If you’re going for a high-class vibe where a lot of wine will be sold, it is strongly recommended that you send your staff to a wine class.
- Don’t be a snob – It’s just booze, let people enjoy it. If you’ve got a large list of wines, make sure you have price points and styles for people of all price levels and wine knowledge. I’m coming to your restaurant to enjoy myself, not feel intimidated.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help – If wine is not your thing, enlist the help of your distributors (but be aware they have product to move and may not always have your best interest in mind), contact a local wine store, or contact your local wine blogging celebrity (if there is such a thing), we’re always happy to give our opinion.
There you have it, my take on what makes a great restaurant wine list. What other ideas do you have? I’d love to hear your thoughts, or examples of places that’ve got it right. By the way, congratulations to Ambrosia Bistro and Wine Bar and Max at Mirabeau for being recognized for their stand out wine lists in Spokane, WA.