Dear Jo, I write to you once again on a subject close to my palate and wallet: wine in restaurants.
The other day I was dining at T. Gregory's, a moder ately expensive Georgetown restaurant. After four attempts, I found a wine that was available as listed. But, had I really wanted it, I'd have chosen that wine in the first place.
Another day, I was lunching in the caf,e in the Marbury Hotel. Thirty-five minutes after ordering, the waiter managed to locate the wine, the ice bucket and the corkscrew. Had I been a less indolent fellow, I would not have had time to drink my wine before returning to the office.
As if these incidents weren't enough, I can't help noticing the difference between prices in restaurants and in liquor stores. I know I am paying for the service in a restaurant, but what am I getting in return? Very little, it would seem. Is there any formula for restaurant pricing?
What, if anything, can we, the patrons of Washington's restaurants, do about this depressing situation?
As ever in vino,
I have spoken to several restaurateurs and their suppliers, the wine wholesalers, in order to understand their selection and pricing policies. The following is a summary of what they tell me.
Selection: Reprinting a wine list is expensive. Therefore, restaurants like to have continuity of supply from wholesalers. Accordingly, the wholesalers will recommend wines that are regular items on their own price lists: popular or fashionable wines, such as California chardonnay, pouilly- fuiss,e, beaujolais; heavily advertised brands, Blue Nun or Bolla, which the public will recognize; in other words, wines that will be ordered, regardless of vintage.
Frankly, another reason for the monotonous play-safe wine lists is the ignorance of many of the restaurants' wine buyers. They find it simpler to leave the selection to wholesalers. And wholesalers obviously prefer to list the well-stocked items.
Pricing: Yes, a restaurant charges more than a liquor store for the same wine. No, there is no universal formula for just how much more it will charge. According to the restaurateurs, their higher markups are necessary to cover storage and service.
Nobody begrudges a restaurant its deserved profit. But how many are deserving? Most buy wine on a hand-to-mouth basis-- in on Monday, out by Saturday. They are not laying down young wines and reaping their just rewards in the future. They say they can't afford the storage space.
The average markup in a Washington restaurant is two-and-a- half times cost, compared with the 50 percent of a retailer. In other words, a wine that the wholesaler sells for $5 will cost $7.50 retail and $12.50 in a restaurant.
On top of the markup for "service," there's the tip. If the waiter not only poured the wine correctly but refilled the glasses occasionally, it would be deserved. In a bistro, you don't expect attentive service, but it's no better in the expensive K Street corridor establishments. There, markups can exceed five times cost, and you'll still struggle with selection and service.
What can we do? Complain. Complain about the selection and the markups. Persuade the restaurateurs that enough patrons would buy better wines if the markup were lower and the selection more tempting. The restaurant would make the same profit in the end. Complain about inadequate information on wine lists. Complain about poor service, through the tip, if necessary.