Mastering wine lists
How to win the restaurant value game
Uncorked by David Marglin
Usually this column concerns itself with
retail wine shopping. But for many of
us, our most difficult wine encounters take place in restaurants, where we're
confronted by a list
-- a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar -- and have to
juggle priorities: value,
taste, and not looking like a buffoon.
You can't have a ready-made guide for every list, so what you need is
something more portable: a cogent strategy.
For most of us, the first consideration is money. You want to read a list and
find good values -- what another columnist has called the "holes" on the wine
list, bottles that'll get you the best wine bang for your dining buck. So how
do you hit the holes? Since all wine lists are not created equal, and since
each list is going to have something on it that will be the right wine given
the circumstances, you need to understand the construction of wine lists.
The key piece of information you need is something most restaurants prefer not
to talk about: how do they mark up their wines? A restaurant that's really into
wine, such as
in Brighton, will be up-front and add a fixed amount -- $10,
in this case -- to the wholesale price of each wine. Wine lovers covet such
restaurants, because you can score super values on wines whose
increased on the open market (and yet, astoundingly, have remained fixed on the
list at these places).
Most restaurants, however, vary the markup from wine to wine. You'll find most
of the serious markups at the high and low ends of the list. On the low end,
plonk gets marked up because inferior wines are cash-flow drivers -- customers
need a bottle of wine and they want what's cheap, so they don't really care
what they're getting for $18 or $20. Markups on the low end can reach 200
percent -- say, $12 added to a bottle worth $6 in the store.
At the high end, there's a different problem: you have rarities that wine
drinkers otherwise wouldn't be able to buy, and you're selling to rich people
(or expense-account diners) who are more or less indifferent to cost. Twelve
hundred dollars for a Chateau Lafite at Maison Robert? Pas de
problème, mes amis.
Look toward the middle of the list, where markups are murkier but not as high;
they'll probably fluctuate between 50 percent and 100 percent. On a good-value
wine list, you can do better toward the bottom.
One other piece of advice: whenever possible, buy by the bottle. Buying wine
by the glass may be the cheapest way to get a glass of wine, but it's also the
worst value. I'm not saying that wine by the glass is inherently bad; it allows
you to experiment and find out what you like. But bottles are almost always a
So let's see how these strategies play out in practice. Casablanca, in Harvard
Square, recently revamped its wine list. The idea was to find some strong
artisan wines (not necessarily well-known ones) that could stand up to spicy
food. How to order here?
Well, for $18 a bottle (or $4.50 a glass), you can get a serviceable but
uninspiring California merlot, a Washington State chardonnay-sauvignon blanc
blend that is just decent, or a Romanian pinot gris. These wines are affordable
by any standard, but none is particularly interesting. Step up to the mid-$20s
and you can try a powerful '88 Montecillo
Rioja, an earthy Provençal
Bandol, or a tremendously fruity, grapefruity
Sancerre from Blondeau. All are
meaningful wine experiences
that represent more than a $5 or $6 improvement over those $18 wines.
Cabernet sauvignon is the most popular red wine in America, but Casablanca
has only two cabs on the list (softer Bordeaux-style wines don't really fit
the food). Knowing that, you want to stay away from the cab and look for the
spicy wine that will deliver flavor and complexity. The biggest values are
right at $30: a knockout 1995 Edmund St. John Syrah from Napa and a stellar,
award-winning Italian wine, G.D. Vajra's Dolcetto d'Alba, which is like a
younger, fruitier Barolo with tremendous fruit and structure and some striking
coffee, leather, and spice notes. Now you're drinking wine that's hard to find
in stores and that stands up to anything on the menu -- a wine you will not
soon forget. You will enjoy these glasses so much more than those you could
have consumed for $18.
Of course, most of us don't walk into a restaurant knowing the retail prices
of all the wines on the list. And not everyone knows the Dolcetto will be
better than a cabernet. What then?
Your first resort should be the sommelier, or whoever handles the wine buying.
A sommelier buys the wines, stores them, and helps pair them with food. (More
serious wine drinkers often
choose their wine first
and then figure out what
food will make the wine sing.) If the sommelier isn't handy, or doesn't exist,
then maybe the wait staff knows a thing or two about the wines on the list.
Just remember: you're paying for the privilege of eating at the restaurant, so
you might as well get the full service you deserve. If you can find the person
who picked the wines and ask him or her about that
process, you will not only
learn something but increase enormously your chances of finding the perfect
At Upstairs at the Pudding, more than half the list consists of American
wines. That means you will find a lot of values in the American section. The
list starts pretty high -- around $25 -- but if you talk to the sommelier
you'll learn that customers weren't buying the cheapest wines, so the
restaurant just dumped the bottom of the list. Among the reds, the low end now
consists of midlist wines with real character: a sensational bottle of 1994
Chateau Souverain Zinfandel
at $27, for example, and a 1994 Rioja Crianza from
Conde de Valdemar for $26. On the white side, skip the 1995 Chateau St. Jean
Chardonnay at $26 and leap into the $32 Edna Valley Chard from San Luis Obispo
County, or try the 1996 Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc (hard to find in stores) for
$39, or the readily available but nonetheless killer '95 Viognier from Horton
Vineyards -- made in Virginia! -- for $40 even.
In wine, you learn from experience. And if you don't have enough experience to
order confidently, don't be embarrassed -- just borrow it from someone who
David Marglin can be reached at email@example.com.
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