Sunday, August 3, 2008

Intelligent Wine Lover

Restaurant Wine Prices Are Too High

A few months ago I sat as a seminar panelist at the 2008 Miami setting (Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables) of the Vinitaly Italian wines promotion tour. The panel's theme was NEW TRENDS IN MIAMI RESTAURANTS AND THE WINE BUSINESS. The event organizers selected my topic; the job called for me to present something like the perspective of the online wine consumer community.

After explaining that my connection to the industry is strictly as a judicious consumer, I attempted to enlighten the professionals, particularly restaurateurs, about some of the concerns we wine consumers have. I spoke about Miami not really having a "wine culture", even though there is a great deal of interest about wine and people willing to pay for it. I complained about restaurants generally not having servers who know anything about the wines for which they take orders. I tried to tell them that my biggest gripe, and I suspect that of restaurant wine consumers in general, is offensively high prices.

The message was that high prices hurt the Italian wine industry (and the wine industry in general) because they make it less likely that patrons will buy any wine at all or will buy less of whatever they order. Perhaps even equally important, high prices deter experimentation, to the detriment of wine producers, regions and grapes that lie off the known path.

It's one thing to pay $30 for a bottle of an unknown label of Pinot Grigio, where at least you will have a general idea of what it will taste like. It's another to put down good money for a bottle of Nero d'Avola, a name you saw for the first time on the wine list, particularly when the most the server can do to educate you about it is show you or read to you the sophistry on the back of the bottle.

Similarly, it's one thing to buy a $20 bottle at a restaurant, not like it, set it aside, and get another one. It's another to by a $90 bottle and walk away from it. I issued a call to restaurateurs to align table prices more closely with street prices.

After the seminar, I got some direct and indirect feedback from some of the restaurant owners. One protested that I was preaching against her ability to make a living. Another mentioned that at his place he only charged twice his cost (100% gross margin), so, using our benchmark $10 bottle, he would only ask his patrons to pay $14 (rounding up to the next dollar).

I take my hat off to anyone who owns a restaurant. Theirs is a high risk and arduous business. Yet, I don't buy the party line that to "make a living" restaurant owners need to charge offensively high wine prices.

This complaint begs the question: OK, Leo, how should restaurateurs price their wines? That will be the subject of the next entry in this blog--which I have already written, but need to edit it some more to make sure I don't say the kinds of things that make the wife roll her eyes, as she does whenever I do or say the kinds of things refined folk don't.

Leo Bueno
Miami, Florida