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Wine: Star Sommelier Mark Slater Moves to Ray's the Steaks

Star sommelier Mark Slater, right, departed Michel Richard Citronelle in March to work for Michael Landrum, left.
Star sommelier Mark Slater, right, departed Michel Richard Citronelle in March to work for Michael Landrum, left. (By Dominic Bracco Ii For The Washington Post)

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By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mark Slater has reinvented himself. For a dozen years as the tuxedo-clad, tastevin-slinging sommelier at Michel Richard Citronelle, Slater personified the luxury side of wine. He presided over a mammoth list of more than 800 selections and a cellar of nearly 10,000 bottles. Winemakers begged and cajoled him to list their products, and last year the James Beard Foundation honored him with its award for outstanding wine program.

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In mid-March, Slater shocked the Washington wine community by leaving Citronelle to take over the wine program at Ray's the Steaks, a casual carnivore's paradise in Arlington. After managing a list with four-figure prices at the high end and a "sweet spot" of wines at $95 to $200 a bottle, Slater now is creating a value-oriented lineup with prices averaging between $35 and $50.

High wine prices are one of the most common complaints about restaurant dining. Slater and his new boss, iconoclastic restaurateur Michael Landrum, have vowed to shake up the restaurant wine scene with aggressively low markups.

"Our goal is to create a radicalized wine program that will really upend the market," Landrum said in a recent interview at Ray's the Steaks. "Most restaurants give you nothing but crap under $50 to $70 a bottle. The sad thing about fine dining is that a 300 percent markup is across the board."

Landrum has a reputation for poking a stick at restaurant conceits. When posh steakhouses became the D.C. norm, he proved that a great steak does not have to cost $50; Ray's steaks start at $14.95. His response to the $20 gourmet hamburger is Ray's Hell-Burger, where burgers cost a mere $6.95. So wine lovers salivated at the news that Landrum had hired Slater and would take aim at wine markups.

Here's how they plan to do it: A wine that costs $10 from a wholesaler typically would sell for $15 or $16 in a retail store and $30 or more at a restaurant. Landrum and Slater plan to mark up any wines costing them up to $25 by multiplying the wholesale price by 2.5, so the $10 wine would appear on the list at Ray's for $25. Similarly, a wine costing $25 wholesale would sell at about $38 retail, $75 after a typical restaurant markup and $63 at Ray's.

For wines wholesaling between $26 and $75, Slater will multiply by 2.2. He pointed gleefully to his listing of Silver Oak 2004 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for $117. "That's $53 wholesale, and it will cost you at least $160 at most steakhouses in town," he said.

Wines that wholesale for more than $75 will simply be marked up $100 over cost. At the extreme high end, Slater could be selling wines at prices lower than retail. (He doesn't have any such wines yet, but given his connections and Landrum's ambitions, it's just a matter of time.)

He will follow the same pricing for wines by the glass but will offer different-size pours. "So if someone wants a glass and a half, they can order that, or two or more people can do a mini-tasting with enough to share," Slater said.

If you expend a lot of time and resentment poring over restaurant wine lists, you've no doubt seen bottles priced at more than three times retail. Especially in a recession, the Landrum-Slater algorithm seems all the more diner-friendly.

There's more. Ray's the Steaks also has a retail license, and soon the menu will announce that any wine on the list selling for $75 or less may be purchased at the list price minus 15 percent.

Slater plans to host a wine club on Monday evenings and will be available as a consultant for wine lovers looking to build their collections, with special case orders handled through the restaurant.

How can Ray's afford the lower markups? Essentially by relying on volume and the restaurant's famous "no lingering" policy to keep sales up. Slater said the restaurant serves upward of 400 people on weeknights and 500 or more Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays: "That's a lot of wine."

Slater's first list, of about 125 wines, was unveiled in mid-April. He plans to add up to 30 wines each month until the list tops out at around 500. Meanwhile, he is managing the wine programs at Landrum's other restaurants, including Ray's the Classics in Silver Spring and the forthcoming Ray's the Catch in Arlington.

"This is a whole new segment of the market for me," Slater said, clearly enjoying his new gig. "There's more to wine than grand cru Burgundy, and I'm being exposed to wines I'd never see at Citronelle."

His top seller so far? Las Perdices Malbec from Argentina, which lists at $21. "That stuff flies out of here," he said, shaking his head with wonder. "I sold 15 cases in a week!"

He can also relax a little in his new role as wine guru to the common man. The tux and tastevin, the silver tasting cup worn like a medal at his old job, are gone; Slater works the floor at Ray's dressed in a simple blazer and slacks. "I started with a tie, but that didn't seem right," he said. "But I'll probably keep the sport coat. Not everyone comes in here in jeans and flip-flops."

Dave McIntyre can be reached through his Web site, http://www.dmwineline.com, or at food@washpost.com.


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