THE NEXT TIME you head out to a restaurant, consider some general facts about the cost and availability of wine:
*Cellars and storage tanks around the world are full of the stuff. Good and bountiful harvests in the last few years have contributed both the to quantity and quality of easily obtainable wine.
*The dollar is falling but opportunities to buy cheap wine have been around for years, and still are. Some wine has actually gone down in price, following the trend in inflation and interest rates.
Restaurants buy wine wholesale, not at retail prices.
Thanks to liberal tax and import laws in the District of Columbia, restaurateurs can buy wine more cheaply than most anywhere else in the country; they can also directly import their wine if they choose.
*fsIn short, wine here is abundant, relatively cheap, and very popular with diners.
Given the above, there is no reason why restaurant customers should have to pay inflated prices for wine here, yet they do. Wine has replaced booze as the financial backbone of beaneries around town unsatisfied with the drawing power of their cuisine, and disrespectful of their customers. "The price of wine in Washington restaurants has gone from ridiculous to infuriating," says a reader, a professional with an expense account who still feels used by many a capital wine list. "Why do people put up with it?"
Why, indeed? Wine has become a standard item at meals for many, an encouraging development and one that restaurateurs applaud. Now that people have accustomed themselves to wine, some of those same restaurateurs are charging usurous luxury rates. The claim that the prices are justified to keep the restaurants solvent is in most cases blatantly false. Restaurants do not need to triple and quadruple and quintuple the price of wine, as the success of good restaurants with reasonably priced wine proves. Those restaurants that overcharge their customers for wine should be avoided.
Now add to inflated prices another assault upon the consumer, known as the shrinking pour. You're getting less wine in your glass than you used to get, as some of you have noticed. Recently in a downtown restaurant known for its affinity for wine I ordered the cheapest on the board, a pinot grigio, and was surprised when the glass presented was not quite half full. I asked the bartender what the portion was. He said, "I don't know, that's what they tell me to pour." A waitress said the glass held 10 ounces. For five ounces at best I paid $2.50, a bit less than the wholesale cost of the entire bottle. Since a bottle of wine holds at least 25 ounces, the markup was more than 400 percent.
The most expensive white, a California chardonnay, sold for $4.50 a "glass." That is about $1 an ounce.
"Why don't you ever write about restaurants that gouge wine-drinkers?" asks another incensed reader. That is a good question. If you find yourself paying a dollar an ounce, or if you stumble across a good restaurant from a wine-drinker's point of view, please let me know.