Scanning the wine list at a new Georgetown restaurant, my eye was jolted by the sight of a 1971 Ducru Beaucaillou for $11, perhaps two-thirds of its retail price.
Obviously, there was a mistake, yet I didn't know what to do. My confusion was complicated by my being a wine and food writer, although not known in the restaurant. In other words, ignorance, or at least assured anonymity, would have been bliss.
I called over the maitre d' and asked him vaguely whether the wine list was accurate. He responded, equally vaguely, that there might be an error or two. I parried, inquiring what would happen if I ordered a wine that was mistakenly priced. He replied that the waiter would point out the error if he saw it. The maitre d' departed.
The waiter arrived and I ordered dinner. I showed him the listing of the '71 Ducru and asked him if it was correct. He said, "Of course." I ordered a bottle. When it came, I quickly inspected it and gave the waiter the go-ahead. He pulled the cork. I tasted the wine and it was wonderful, easily the best $11 bottle I've drunk at a restaurant in a decade.
Just then the maitre d' walked by. Barely glancing at my table, he said, "You ordered the Ducru, didn't you?"
As I was finishing the steak and wine, I asked the maitre d' what the price of the wine should have been. He said $71. (At about four times retail, $71 is at least as high for that wine as $11 is low.) He explained that the recommended price for many of the wines, including the Ducru, had been provided by Kronheim & Company, the wine's distributor. Some copies of the wine lists had been corrected, but obviously not all. Kronheim, he informed me, would make up the difference. I had been thinking that the maitre d' had been taking the whole thing rather well.
We continued our discussion. He said that since I had asked the waiter about the price, there was no doubt that I was entitled to receive the wine at the listed price. But, I asked, what about someone who doesn't inquire, but simply orders? He said he or she, too, would be charged the listed amount, so long as the error is not caught before the cork is pulled.
Unfortunately, I was told, I had had their last bottle of '71 Ducru Beaucaillou. (It has since appeared on that same wine list at $60.) In giving the matter further thought, I have decided that next time I'll handle it differently. No more caveat emptor for me. And no more questions. From now on its caveat venditor.
When I think of wine wastelands, a few states such as Utah and Oklahoma leap to mind. I've been told that those states have, among other things, archaic liquor laws. For example, liquor cannot be sold by the drink. It was explained to me that if you want a drink of scotch before dinner at a restaurant, you must either bring a bottle with you or buy one at the restaurant. While liquor comes in fairly small bottles, it can be irritating.
I recently went to Tulsa for the first time on business. Nervously, I inquired about the availability of wine at restaurants. To my relief and pleasure, the same laws that can cause anguish to someone in search of a pre-dinner cocktail are a blessing to the conscientious drinker of wine.
Restaurants cannot charge more for a bottle of wine than they pay for it. They can charge a corkage fee, but it must be the same for all bottles of wine. At the prestigious Southern Hills Country Club, the corkage is $8. At Montague's, an elegant French restaurant in Williams Plaza Hotel, the city's finest, the corkage is $5. According to the maitre d' at Montague's, they do not stock wines on the wine list. When a bottle of wine is ordered, the restaurant sends out for it to a wine and liquor shop located nearby in the Williams Center complex.
As for Utah, the law is more complex. Customers can bring in their own wines and restaurants will serve them for a corkage fee. In fact, no self-respecting wine lover would think of doing anything else. All wine and liquors are sold at state liquor stores, and that includes mini-state liquor stores located at restaurants.
A sampling of the wines and prices (before corkage) available at the Tulsa restaurants is refreshing:
* Chateau Beychevelle '71 -- $16
* Chateau Leoville-Las Cases '67 -- $13
* Cheateau Montelena '78 Chardonnay -- $11.50
* Robert Mondavi '76 Cabernet -- $9
* Domaine Chandon Brut -- $8
These prices could start a stampede to the nearest Braniff counter. No more Oklahoma jokes for me. Only Utah.