“That’s practically retail,” I kept muttering as I scanned the wine list at Range, Bryan Voltaggio’s new restaurant in Friendship Heights. There was the Stag’s Leap Artemis at $90, barely marked up at all. Then I saw the Horton Norton from Virginia at a mere $20 and the excellent Jim Barry The Cover Drive Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia at $36.
The more I flipped the pages, the more I realized I was in a wine lover’s dream: a restaurant that treats diners of every socioeconomic status — not just wealthy collectors — with respect. One that not only salts its list with rare bottles of the world’s most sought-after wines but also peppers it with the best from local vineyards and bargains from around the world. A place where we can splurge on fantastic food without mortgaging our houses for wine to wash it down with.
The list is the creation of Keith Goldston, a master sommelier who first collaborated with Voltaggio at Charlie Palmer Steak on Capitol Hill before the chef became a national TV star on Bravo’s “Top Chef” series. When Voltaggio asked him to manage the wine program at Range, Goldston threw down a challenge: He wanted to be aggressive on pricing to make wine accessible to diners.
“If you ask almost any sommelier off the record, almost all of them would say they would love to see lower wine prices,” Goldston says. “We love to drink wine and we know what it costs. So when we eat out, we see great wines, but we don’t want to pay those markups.”
Most restaurants that care about wine use a sliding-scale markup averaging 2.5 times the wholesale cost of a bottle, compared with the usual retail markup of 1.5 times. For example, a bottle costing $20 wholesale would sell in a store for about $30 and in a restaurant for about $50. Beverages — including wine, beer and, of course, bottled water — provide restaurants their best profit margins, so there is often even more pressure on prices. Wine markups of three or four times wholesale, or two or three times retail, are not uncommon. “I’ve talked to clients who insist on five times markup,” Goldston says.
So he pitched Voltaggio on an average markup of two times the wholesale price, with higher-end wines having a straight surcharge for “pure profit” that puts them under that level. That makes the entire list a relative bargain, especially if you can afford to do more than window-shop on the higher end.
Goldston is proud of the cheaper wines on the list, a segment often neglected by restaurants. “Diners are understandably suspicious of the least-expensive wine on a list, assuming it’s the worst,” he says. “But when there are several under $30, with different styles, it makes people more comfortable ordering in that price range.”
Voltaggio was willing to endorse the aggressive pricing. “We want to put wine back on the table,” he said, noting a recent trend toward craft beers and cocktails. “I don’t want to collect wine. I want to turn inventory.”
To make the accountants happy, Goldston says, he needs to sell 30 percent more wine than he would with typical markups. To help turn that inventory, he hired another master sommelier, Kathryn Morgan, familiar to Washington diners from her work at Michel Richard Citronelle, Ristorante Tosca and 2941. There are fewer than 200 master sommeliers in the world, and our town has two in one restaurant.
Goldston uses musical references to make wines less intimidating to diners. Are you in the mood for some Skinny Elvis with your appetizers? That would be a “lean and racy white” such as the Sigalas Assyrtiko from Greece for $36. If you prefer Miles Davis, you might choose a Chacra Pinot Noir from Argentina at $48 or a Domaine de la Romanee-Conti from Burgundy at $522, both listed under “interesting and complex reds (and sometimes quite confusing).” Goldston even has a page dedicated to the band Rush, described as “whites with incredible precision, power and purity, some will say the greatest ever; either you get it or you don’t.” The entire page is Rieslings.
Yes, a wine lover’s dream.