We’ve lamented the state of restaurant wine on the blog quite a bit this year, and it’s always one of the most common questions I get when I talk to wine drinkers. But lamentable is nothing new. Even James Bond, the coolest spy in the world, must endure it.
Witness this scene from “Diamonds are Forever.” You’d think a Bond villain posing as a waiter would know that a claret is a red wine from Bordeaux. How else is he is going to be able to kill Bond without being killed himself?
The Wine Curmudgeon interrupts the regularly scheduled rant about crappy restaurant wine – I found a wine bar that does it the right way.
It’s the Wine Thief, located in the Omni hotel in Fort Worth, two things that make its excellence even more amazing. First, Fort Worth is not a wine town, and second, hotels are notorious for their indifference to wine. Nevertheless, the Wine Thief does one of the best jobs I’ve seen in 20-some years of paying for wine in restaurants. I bought a bottle of an excellent Faiveley white Burgundy, about $20 retail, for $45 – a price and quality combination that I find in a restaurant about as often as I run scores on the blog.
What makes the Wine Thief work?
• No hotel mentality, which means there aren’t any crappy, very overpriced wines. Hotel wine markups are probably the worst in the world (five to one, anyone?), and the wines are often as bad as the markups.
• Texas wine. And not just one, but from five producers. Because, said general manager Phil Natale, “We get visitors from all over the world, and they want to have local wine. So we need to have some for them.”
• Fair pricing, and not just for the white Burgundy. Most of the markups seemed to be no more than three to one, and some seemed to be less. “We want the pricing to be attractive enough so that customers will want to buy a bottle,” said Natale, about as subversive a thing as I’ve ever heard a restaurant person say.
• An interesting wine list, almost devoid of the distributor-driven stuff that dominates in restaurants. I saw a half dozen quality labels that I have not seen on lists in years, Sicilian and Loire sparkling among them. Natale told me he did this to be different, which was the Wine Thief’s reason for being.
Restaurant wine prices are too high, which prevents restaurants from selling more wine and restaurant customers from drinking more wine. Everyone understands this but restaurants (see the cheap wine book and various academic studies); nevertheless, the people who run them seem content to charge higher prices, sell less wine, and make even less money.
The Wine Curmudgeon was reminded of this again on Saturday night during dinner at Urbano’s, probably Dallas’ best-known BYOB restaurant and where the food is more or less moderately priced. During the 2 ½ hours we were there, everyone was drinking wine, most of the tables had more than one bottle (including sparkling and rose, not a common sight), and hardly any of the wine I saw was grocery store plonk. The table next to us, in fact, came prepared with a very expensive wine carryall that contained several pricey bottles.
What was the reason for all that wine? Urbano’s charges $5 per bottle for corkage, so no one had to pay $50 for a bottle from a mediocre wine list. Instead, a table of of four will spend $10 at Urbano’s for two bottles of wine, cutting the bill by at least one-third.
The caveats? Urbano is small, with fewer than a couple of dozen tables, and its reputation as BYOB means it attracts wine drinkers. But given the traditional Dallas antipathy to wine – the bottle at my table when I go out usually gets more than a few stares from the sweet tea drinkers – every table at Urbano’s that had wine speaks volumes about the difference price makes. Because, as our waitress told me, 80 percent of their customers bring their own wine.
So, once again, a plea for fair restaurant wine pricing. I don’t expect wine so cheap that it competes with retail pricing. But would it be so awful if restaurants only doubled the price of the bottle that cost them $10 instead of tripling it?
• Not so fast, Big Wine: A group of Australian family producers, angered by Big Wine companies who market their “family” roots, have issued a furious denunciation of the practice. “I’m really sick of the latest trend for corporate misuse of the term ‘family’ when promoting wine brands that were sold by the family founders eons ago and conning wine loving consumers and trade alike,” Robert Hill-Smith, the fifth-generation vigneron at Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, Yalumba, told the The Weekend Australian newspaper. Hill-Smith said Big Wine subsidiaries portraying themselves as family companies undermined the validity of family-owned businesses actually owned by families. This is a fascinating story; wineries never air this sort of thing in public, though they say it in private all the time. It also speaks to Big Wine’s need not to be seen as big, something that never seems to bother General Foods or Procter & Gamble. Why that is I’ll leave to the experts.
• Score one for the Italians: The Wine Curmudgeon regularly bemoans the lack of wine education in the U.S., which is why this Italian proposal is so impressive: Children 6 to 13 would spend one hour a week learning about Italy’s wine industry as part of the national education curriculum. “We’re not trying to teach kids to drink – although even if we were it wouldn’t be so bad,” said the sponsor of the legislation. “It’s been shown that knowledge creates responsible drinkers. But this is just an extra subject that will enrich the education of our students. We make children study music in school without expecting them to become musicians.” Hopefully, the various neo-Prohibitionists who are trying to roll back U.S. drinking laws will note this and pause for a moment.
• Won’t they ever learn? A website called Elite Daily, with 2.8 million Facebook likes, ran a piece about how to buy wine in a restaurant and impress your date in the process. The story, supposedly written with advice from a top wine retailer, repeats almost every misconception about restaurant wine I have lamented since the blog started. Gruner veltliner! Plus, it recommends buying white wine from France’s Loire, which is a wonderful idea save for the fact that many wine lists, and especially those at mid-priced restaurants, have little, if any, white Loire. Or we should buy cabernet franc from Spain, which hardly exists. Or we should buy a wine called Rhone Rangers, which is not a wine, but a group of producers in California who make wines with Rhone grapes. Maybe we can enroll the people at Elite Daily in the Italian school wine educations classes.
• Quality cheap wine: The U.S. has become the world’s biggest export market for vinho verde, the green, slightly fizzy wine from Portugal. This isn’t that surprising, given the U.S. desire for quality cheap wine and the Portuguese effort to to upgrade vinho verde quality over the past decade. The wines are much better made than they were when I started tasting them all those years ago, and prices are still mostly the same. One odd bit in the release, though: “As producers throughout the region revamped and upgraded their wineries, many went a step further adding boutique hotels, day spas and tasting rooms to accommodate the growing number of visitors.” Who knew day spas were such a factor in wine consumption?
• Expensive California wine: Our wine drinking colleagues in Great Britain have a difficult time finding affordable California wine, reports Harry Fawkes in Decanter. We know about that, don’t we? Fawkes writes about am especially hip London wine bar, where “all the wines that looked interesting from the USA were over fifty pounds, which even for an enthusiast, is a high price to experiment.” Or, about US$70, which is more than even we’re asked to pay here. Fawkes says the high prices were caused by taxes and distribution costs, but mostly because California producers don’t have any incentive to sell wine overseas since they sell most of what they make here. Which, oddly, are the same reasons that are cited here.
• I, Winemaking robot: An Italian researcher has invented a robot that makes wine, writes Thomas Pellechia in Forbes. No, it doesn’t look like one of Will Smith’s pals (or Isaac Asimov’s, for that matter). Instead, it’s more like an intelligent wine tank, named Genesis and that holds one-quarter ton of grapes. Genesis crushes, ferments, and adjusts the grapes inside itself, using software designed by the researcher, Donato Lanati. This raises a variety of questions: Does Genesis have a subscription to the Wine Spectator so it knows what’s current with the critics? Was it designed to know to add Mega Purple? And what does it think about terroir? Which gives the Wine Curmudgeon something to ponder as I sip my next Italian wine: Do Data and Picard discuss terroir?
“Why didn’t the label say this was a sweet red wine?”
Four things that would make wine more fun to drink after a summer and fall spent traveling and tasting, because I really don’t want to have so many wine complaints:
? Better restaurant wine pricing. I mention this yet again not because I expect it to change, but because so few people in the restaurant business truly understand. I had a restaurateur approach me at a recent event to tell me how wonderful her wine list was. “We’re the only restaurant in this area that cares about wine,” she said. The list? Not awful, and even a couple of interesting bottles, but every wine, even the $8 Big Wine riesling, was marked up at least three times. This restaurant in a tiny town in Arizona was charging $40 for crappy grocery store wine, and the woman was proud of the list. How am I supposed to answer that?
? Back label honesty. I did a tasting this week for cheap holiday wines for a Dallas publication, and what struck me — besides how awful so many of the wines were — was how little the back label description had to do with what the wine tasted like. Soft, syrupy cabernet sauvignons without any tannins were described as elegant, while chardonnay made with so much fake oak that it hurt to swallow were said to be rich and full bodied. How about truth in labeling: “We made this wine to hit a certain price, and it really doesn’t taste like much, but what do you expect for $8?”
? If the wine is sweet, call it sweet. Why does the wine business insist on confusing consumers by leaving sweet off the label when the wine is sweet? I realize that the industry has taught “real” wine drinkers that sweet wine is inferior, and that only old ladies with cats drink it. But I’m tired of tasting wine labeled as dry that is sweet, and I have heard from many consumers who feel the same way. Besides, isn’t it possible that sweet wine labeled sweet would sell better?
? Lidl can’t get to the U.S.too soon. The German discount grocer, known for its quality cheap wines, broke ground on a U.S. distribution center last month, and should start opening stores in the next couple of years. If Lidl does wine in the U.S. the way it does in Europe, those of us who care about cheap wine will have an alternative to the wines in the second item in this post. Or, as my brother emailed me during a trip to Europe, “Love Lidl — great wine selection.”
? One person’s inexpensive: One more example of how restaurants are out of touch with their customers when it comes to restaurant wine prices. This new Dallas restaurant is boasting about its reasonably-priced list, because, said a restaurant official, “We have a low mark up on our wines, so we ?re priced fantastic.” That would be a wine list with most wines supposedly costing less than $100 (no website for the restaurant yet, so I couldn’t check). What would the official have said if there had been really expensive wines on the list? Is it any wonder, unless there’s a special reason to go, that the Wine Curmudgeon has all but abandoned Dallas’ restaurants? Besides, it’s more fun eating at home.
? Bigger and bigger: It’s not just wine companies that are getting bigger, but distributors as well. Wine Industry Insight reports that the 10 biggest distributors in the country control more than two-thirds of the wholesale business, which makes the group more or less as dominant as Big Wine. Why does that matter to consumers? Because, thanks to three-tier, every wine sold to a retailer or a restaurant in the U.S. has to pass through a distributor, which tacks on as much as 25 percent to the cost of the bottle for their effort. Fewer and bigger distributors means less competition, which means that percentage won’t get any smaller any time soon.
? Best practices: Want to know how to help your wine survive shipment, whether it comes directly from the winery or from an online or local retailer? This list, from Entrepreneur magazine, hits the highlights nicely, emphasizing how little wine likes heat, vibrations, and being left on a delivery truck all day. One overlooked point: Give the wine, particularly the pricier bottles, a chance to recover from the trip. The bottles need to rest after being bumped across the country, and letting them sit in a cool, dark room for a week or so isn’t a bad idea.