Many people in the wine trade attach great importance to a position on the wine list of prestige restaurant, feeling this stimulates retail sales.
In California, where more than 100 infant wineries have been born in the last decade, the need for name recognition has been high. Fortunately, it is a land where eating out and wine drinking are taken for granted, so original, diverse and attractively priced wine lists have become part of the restaurant landscape.
Here, on the other hand, restaurants have tended to be unimaginative or conservative in their approach to wine and liberal in their markups "They take the path of least resistance," said one critic. "They put on wines that sell themselves. Quality is not a determining factor."
Most observers agree that the practice is particularly evident with jug or "pouring" wines where restaurants are known to change to a cheaper brand for a matter of pennies. (So great is the markup that the cost of these outsized bottles is recovered by the sale of as few as two glasses. The rest is profit.) About the only defense is to ask the identity of the house wine and refuse to order it if the brand displeases you.
Some enlightened restaurants actually use inexpensive varietal wines as their "house" wines and still make a profit. Others offer champagne by the glass as a aperitif. There is even a practice of charging only $1 above retail for a bottle of wine. That is unlikely to happen here, nor is anyone anticipating the introduction of an all-California list.
"Restaurants have made the reputation of some wineries in California," said one wine merchant. "But here the real wine buyers and the clientele in the fancy restaurants aren't the same, and with the markups the restaurants take, the prices are so high it can even be detrimental."
Sam Greenblat defends local restaurant wine pricing as "very fair" and suggests those who disagree look to Paris or even New York.
Ben May, a Beitzell wine consultant, finds "more sophistication in the market. Lists are becoming smaller and more specialised. There's been a general awakening to the potential of selling wine at attractive prices. The markup used to be 100 percent over wholesale plus something. It's not that way anymore."
Among restaurants here he and others in the trade single out as being receptive to American wines or innovative in pricing policy are - in no particular order - Harvey's, Paul Young's. The Broker, Pier Seven, the Public House, the Big Cheese, Au Pied de Cochon. The Bread Oven, Le Lion d'Or, Dominique's, Clyde's, La Chaumaniere, La Nicoise, the Jockey Club, the Foundry and Nathan's.