EARLIER DISCUSSION HERE of inflated wine prices in Washington restaurants has brought in an enthusiastic response, but not a positive one. The customer's point of view ranges from puzzlement to near homicidal rage, and is probably best summed up by the reader who suggested that gouging restaurateurs be forced to dine in one another's establishments.
Wine prices remain absurdly high in many restaurants. However, many are modifying the traditional Washington approach to wine as something that provides easy profits, rather than pleasure. The simple 100 percent markup over wholesale price is no longer as rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker, and it could possibly become a trend. But don't hold your breath.
Examples of outrageously priced wine in restaurants have accompanied the protests. One reader paid $13.50 for a bottle of beaujolais nouveau that she had bought retail the week before for only $3.49. That represents a markup of approximately 500 percent over the wholesale price. The customer was doubly annoyed because the wine was advertised on a card placed on the table -- without the price. "Imagine our surprise when the bill came," she writes. "I don't like being cheated," and she doesn't plan to return to that restaurant. I don't blame her.
Another reader discovered price gouging along with what he considered blatant pretension. A certain French restaurant heads its wine list with an '82 Latour for $20 -- an incredible offering for a first-growth bordeaux, you are thinking, except that this is not the Cha teau Latour but a Premie res Co te de Bordeaux that wholesales for a big $4. At $8 it would be a bargain; at $20 it's a rip-off.
"As someone who dines at many of Washington's better restaurants at least several evenings each week," writes another reader, "I have been amazed and appalled at the cost of wine. Dinner during a normal meal usually consists of one glass of wine before dinner, and one or two glasses during the meal. Nine times out of ten the wine bill proves to be just under, if not just over, the amount of the food bill.
"As a native Californian, my only question to you is: How does the custom of purchasing one's own wine elsewhere and simply paying a corkage fee at the restaurant go over here in the Washington area? This is routinely practiced in southern California and is not given a second thought."
It goes over, usually, like a bottle of flat Dom Perignon. But it's perfectly legal in the District of Columbia (not in Virginia or Maryland), and many restaurants do not discourage it. Corkage fees in those restaurants are wildly different, so if you want to take a bottle along on your next culinary outing, call ahead and then do so with confidence. A good bottle of wine should always be an acceptable companion.
Restaurants in California encourage such behavior because wine has become part of the culture there. This is not California, granted, but both food and wine have become an integral part of business and pleasure in Washington. It's high time the restaurateurs caught up with the demands of their customers for good, decently priced wine.