Wine prices in restaurants are too high. That fact, and my suggestions that customers take their own to restaurants that jack up wine prices, has caused some acrimony in the trade. The former beverage manager at The Fishery, however, writes to say that he managed to lower prices there and increase the enjoyment and resources of his customers. We should all cheer.
"The prices . . . are not set in the usual or 'normal' manner," he writes. "You will not find wines purchased for $10 being sold for $25. All wines are priced with a profit/bottle markup." In other words, the restaurant adds about the same amount of money to the cost of a good California chardonnay as it does to a bottle of soave. "As the price goes up (at The Fry), so does the value. Most other establishments do the opposite."
He says his wine sales doubled within three months of the new pricing policy. "There has also been a major shift in buying trends . . . The wines above $15 have had the greatest increase in sales. This is a clear sign of the number of people who recognize value."
His wine list, I must add, does not include the vintages of the wines, a trend that is both unfortunate and misleading, since all vintages, even of California wines, are not equal.
Wine in Washington restaurants is not only overpriced, but often badly served to boot. There are exceptions, of course. But too many restaurants seem to depend on expense accounts to keep wine prices inflated, and they employ waiters apparently unaccustomed to dealing with wine. These places still view wine as booze, and price and pour it accordingly, when in fact wine is part of the meal and should be considered as such.
People often tell me that they want to drink wine in restaurants but often do not. They resent inflated wine prices and the indifference or arrogance of waiters who seem to view having to serve wine either as an insult or a waste of time. The two facts are related in some restaurateurs' minds. "I have to mark up my wine," says one, of his 300 percent price hike on readily available plonk. "If I don't, the waiters won't serve it" because it won't add as much to their tip.
There is a quick remedy to that: fire the waiter. And the restaurateur's comment does not explain why his waiters seem reluctant to deal adequately even with overpriced wine.
The following are some common complaints, other than high prices, cited to me by restaurant-goers:
* Wine lists without vintages or producers listed.
* Wines arriving after the firstcourse.
* Wine arriving after the main course.
* Wine bottles slammed down like ketchup containers.
* Wine "specials" that aren't.
* Wine glasses kept brimming by waiters eager to sell another bottle.
Recently in an expensive midtown restaurant a waiter proffered a wine list that included Dom Perignon for $100 and a number of other wines without vintages or the identity of the producers. When I asked the date on the Pouilly-Fuiss,e, he said, "The most recent vintage." (That was not only wrong, but physically impossible.) When I asked who the producer was, he said, "I haven't the slightest idea," with the contempt of a waiter whose real interest is pickles.
Now there's nothing wrong with pickles. But restaurateurs should insist that waiters have knowledge of everything they sell, even overpriced wine. That would be a start.