Scanning a wine list can tell you much about a restaurant and how it views patrons. Some restaurants make wine interesting, affordable and accessible, precisely what you want from a good host. Others mark up the price to the point of unarmed robbery. That means they take customers for fools and see their pockets like ripe grapes, just waiting to be picked.
“I was out with my girlfriend at a restaurant the other week, and I just looked at her and said, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t buy any wine here. It’s just ridiculous,’ ” says John Bates, a general manager who oversees wine for 32 East restaurant in Delray Beach. “The markup was 3 ½ to four times retail. It can sour your whole experience.”
I had a similar episode in April at Point Royal, a seafood restaurant from celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian that opened this year at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood. I refused to order wine there after seeing markups more than triple the retail price, including $170 for a Belle Glos Clark & Telephone Pinot Noir that sells for $50 at Total Wine and $125 for a Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel that sells for $35. I heard from many readers and restaurant people after writing about it, including one local chef who said he called the restaurant to complain about pricing soon after it opened. In recent weeks, Point Royal has lowered prices on wine and other menu items. The Belle Glos is now offered for $135, and the Ridge is listed at $100.
With National Wine Day approaching on Thursday, May 25, I’m still mystified by the way many restaurants in South Florida seem more eager to alienate wine drinkers than to stimulate wine sales. Too many see wine as a way to pad the bottom line, or to pull one over on novices and tourists who don’t know the difference between Bordeaux and Budweiser. If the point is selling wine and encouraging a new generation of wine lovers, then restaurants would be wise not to gouge, and to offer decent wines at all price ranges. Why must some places insist on selling wines above three times retail price, my personal barometer for boycotting, or having no good bottles below $50?
The answer, I’m afraid, is because they can. Wine drinkers should demand more. Don’t just take to Yelp! or social media with complaints. Go to a living, breathing manager and explain why you didn’t order wine and why you won’t be returning.
Bates runs one of the better wine programs around at 32 East, which I recently awarded four stars in a review. He offers diners unpretentious, friendly advice along with fairly priced, hard-to-find bottles from boutique wineries. He makes wine fun and approachable, not elitist or snobby. He talks to patrons about what they drink at home and gets a sense of what would please their palates and budget. He has many half bottles available (a great way to allow for multivarietal experimentation without becoming sloshed) and many interesting dessert wines.
When I went to 32 East for a recent review visit, Bates, who didn’t know who I was, recommended a 2012 Law Estate Sagacious, a red blend of Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache from Paso Robles, Calif. It is no longer available from the producer, but I found it online for $74 (plus $14 shipping). At the restaurant, I paid $125. I considered it a good value, and a great bottle of wine.
“I want to earn people’s trust,” Bates says. “The next time they come back, if I tell them about something that has just arrived that I think they’ll like it, they’ll order it. … When it comes to wine I’d rather be a seller with an ‘S’ than a cellar with a ‘C.’ ”
Bates explained to me his sliding scale for wine markups. Lower-priced bottles are marked up by a multiple of 2.5 to 2.7 wholesale price. Bottles that wholesale for $40 are marked up by a 2.3 multiple. More expensive bottles are offered at double markup or less.
For me, wine is a necessary component of a fine meal. I have to pay for my own wine at review meals — my company picks up the food tab — and I gladly do it, in part because good wine makes a meal more enjoyable and in part because wine service gives you a glimpse into a restaurant’s soul. Greed, snootiness, generosity, curiosity, competence, ignorance, arrogance, playing to popular tastes (and powerful distributors) with safe favorites or breaking away with eclectic and harder to procure labels — all these restaurant traits can be gleaned from ordering wine.
Last year, I had an unfortunate experience at one of the trendiest restaurants in Miami, which featured an esoteric and expensive list. The wine steward was of little help, and when I asked about one of the more reasonable selections, a $100 Zinfandel from California, my tablemate later told me that the steward rolled his eyes. The haughty vibes presaged bad things. I hated nearly everything about the place.
Like anything worth loving, wine can be complicated and challenging, for diners and restaurants alike. It can be clunky to ask about a restaurant’s corkage policy and whether one can bring his own bottle. It can be easier to order a beer or cocktail. More young and trendy diners are gravitating toward these options as beers get craftier and tastier and cocktails get more intricate and sophisticated. Wine consumption in U.S. restaurants and bars decreased 1 percent in 2015, according to the Wine Institute trade group.
I say there should always be a place at the table for wine. As the cliché found on the Italian restaurant menus of my youth said, “A day without wine is like a day without sunshine.” Too bad so many restaurants keep giving wine lovers a soaking.