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Apr 22, 2007 10:12 AM

Restaurant Ripoffs: Wine and Water

I'm getting to hate restaurants, especially because of their ripoff policy on wine pricing. For example, recently at the Bryant Park Cafe the cheapest wine on the list was $30. Not so bad--but I know they got it for about $6 wholesale (Beverage Media Monthly tells all!)

Latest scam: selling tap water! Pretending to respond to environmental concerns about the waste involved in bottled water (glass and plastic, shipping over long distances) some fancy joints are not filtering tap water and selling it for $6+ a bottle.

By the way, eco-pals:Restaurants that use "reverse-osmosis" filtration are the worst offenders. This kind of filter WASTES 5 gals of perfectly clean municipal tap water for every gallon of filtered water it delivers.

Anybody for BYOB? How about restaurants that encourage BYOB--are there any?
(I know there are plenty that try to kill it by charging ruinous corkage fees--and would be glad to hear from 'Hounders about excesses they've experienced.

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  1. Clarification needed, Bill:
    "some fancy joints are not filtering tap water and selling it for $6+ a bottle"

    did you mean to say "are NOW filtering tap water..."?

    1. Interesting thoughts on the H²O, I have run afoul of some of the water situation in some spots, but it has not been a big issue.

      With regards to wine, a study was done about 10 years ago by the restaurant industry (wish that I had a link handy), that showed when most restaurants cut their wine markup, their sales AND their profits soared. Too bad that more restauranteurs did not see this study. However, most restaurants seem to be run by MBA's and their view of a "bottom line," is often skewed from the real world.

      Many restaurants could stand to revamp their wine list, offering fairly priced wines, that pair with their chef's food, from the lower end all the way to the to the rare cult wines. In New Orleans, a great food town, I find that too many shops offer Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve for US$60/btl. then jump to the top-end DRC Burgs at US$6000/btl. Nothing in between!

      As for BYOB, I only utilize this, when I have a "special occasion" wine, that I want to share with my wife, or good friends. Otherwise, I work the wine list, as best I can.


      2 Replies
      1. re: Bill Hunt

        Worse wine offender is some hotels relabelling two buck chuck, calling it their Private Label, and charging $30 (that's fifteen times retail, or ten times retail if you're in a state where Charles Shaw is three buck chuck).

        1. re: Pei

          Yewe-e-e, that hurts! I am always suspicious of "private labels." I have been burned, more than once with such marketing. One, in particular, still hurts and it was six, or so, years ago. Of course, it still hurts that restaurant, as I have vetoed board dinners there on about four occasions.

          Roy Yamaguchi does a lot of this, but many of his "private labels," are from Brian Babcock, Central Coast, CA, and are usually good wines, and good matches for his menus. Still, I'm not a big fan of private cuvees, lables, etc. Most are poor and marked up way too much.


      2. I don't know where you are but if a restaurant in my area was going to charge me for tap water I would be getting up and leaving. I don't get the reverse osmosis thing as the only situation I've ever heard of that being used is in large scale desalination plants.

        As a far as wine prices, I generally agree that a lot of restaurants go nuts with the markup. I have a very good friend who is an importer and I know what restaurants he sells to and the prices. When I go to those restaurants, he tells me what the best value is on the wine list.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Den

          RO is used in large desal projects (all you in California may see a couple down south soon) but smaller home units are available as well.

        2. I have to agree with you on the wine pricing. As most of you know, I work for a high end Napa Valley winery. Our wine can be found from $150.00 in some parts of the country all the way up to $400.00 in others. In my experience, I have found the smaller markets have the most mark up.

          As a winery representative, I can only suggest pricing. I cannot dictate it. One thing that really iritates me is when a restauranteur tells me my wine doesn't sell well, and it is marked up to $400.00 a bottle. Well of course not, it is signifigantly overpriced. AARRRGGGHH!!!

          8 Replies
          1. re: chickstein

            this may not be the best thing for wineries but I think I've noticed a bit of a trend here in San Diego to expanded 'by the glass" lists. This is something I really appreciate as it makes it easier to match each dish and I get an opportunity to try one or more wines that I may not have tried previously. The places that do this also seem to be a bit more user friendly on prices.

            1. re: ibstatguy

              I've noticed more half bottle selections out west (Las Vegas and California). I really like that and wish the midwest would catch on.

              1. re: Cookiefiend

                I find this to be a real "plus" with a wine list. I always make a point of letting the sommelier know how much I appreciate the half-bottles, even if we have done a pairing, or a couple of full-bottles. We often dine as a coupe, and appreciate the ability to do, say 3 half-bottles to work with the full meal. If we have 2-6 other diners, it's not a big deal.

                If you let them know how much you like it, more will be doing it.


                1. re: Bill Hunt

                  We'll keep trying!
                  That's the best way to learn about wines as well - to find out if you like a particular wine or not!

                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                    The selection of half-bottles is the measure I judge a wine list by the most. My wife and I are big fans of the 375ml format as it allows a bit more than a glass each which is often what we're looking for on a weeknight out. For longer dinners, it also allows for the half bottle with starters or first course and a full bottle with the rest of the meal. It really opens up the possibilities for choosing wine for the meal.

                    1. re: ccbweb

                      There are only a handful of cities that are really 375ml friendly (at least in my world). I can sell 375ml bottles in New Orleans all day. I can't give them away in Birmingham. Since my winery makes so few half bottles, for resons too numerous to list, I would not even offer half bottles to Alabama and give more to Louisiana.

                      Each city has its own personality.

                      1. re: chickstein

                        Interesting observation - thanks. The trend in halves in NO must be a fairly new one and I'm glad to hear it. In my days there, wine was usually low-end (horribly marked up), jumping to rare Bdx. and Burgs at even MORE obscene markups. Glad that things are changing. I never spent any time in Birmingham (your example), so I have no clue as to how wine is thought of there. Though once close in size and not that distant (mileage wise) from one another, I would guess that there is a major social difference, that would show up in wine lists.

                        Yes, halves are not cheap for the winemaker, and sometimes a headache to the restaurant. That's why I heap praise on anyone, who takes the time and $ to stock them, especially if they pair well with the cuisine.

                        Thanks for the info,

                      2. re: ccbweb

                        Hear - hear. Even if I do not partake of the halves on a list, I always let the server/sommelier/manager know how much I appreciate the offerings.


              2. Water first: Chez Panisse has stopped selling bottled water. Good for them! One can only hope it spreads.

                Now wine . . .

                Unlike chickstein, I am OUT of the wine trade after 35 years -- having worked for retailers and restaurants, wineries (both in production and marketing), wholesalers and importers.

                When I bought wine for a restaurant, I worked in a small wine bar in Santa Cruz, CA (11 bar stools, 14 tables). No liquor lisence, we had beer and wine only. Three beers on tap, 24 by the bottle. Wine list was 200+, with 20+ available by the glass -- changing frequently.

                Our wine list pricing policy was simple. Rather than working on a percentage-based mark-up policy, we sold wines at a flat $5.00 over the Winery Suggested Retail Price. (Today, I'd probably mark the wines up $10-15, depending upon the cost of the wine.) The result was a $20 bottle at retail was a very affordable $25 on our list; a pricey bottle -- say $100, sold on our list for $105.

                We sold a lot of wine, and had very little BYOB -- but we always welcomed that, too.

                11 Replies
                1. re: zin1953

                  I would love to see that these days. It drives me crazy when a wine I can buy at the local grocery store for $7 is on the wine list for $35-40. C'mon. Even an almost 200% mark-up at $20 would be ok.

                  That said, i now tend to pass on alcohol at restaurants b/c i feel the mark-up is criminal. If I really want a drink with the meal I go for just a glass of wine.

                  1. re: stolenchange

                    Drives me crazy too -- but I usually take a different route. Rather than abstain from ordering wine, I pick one that's generally not available in my local stores. A lot of great restaurants here have relationships with wineries that get them bottles us mere mortals can't normally get our paws on. Alternately, I'll order something with a little age on it. Yeah, it's expensive, but it never feels like a waste.

                    I actually believe having a kendall jackson on your wine list *at all* is the mark of a bad restaurant. I've gotten up and walked out of places with awful lists like that.

                    1. re: oolah


                      For the most part I agree with you, why buy something that you can easily get at the store. I haven't seen a K-J I wanted to drink since the '97 Cab, but they used to make some very good wines. Not much anymore, but they are a good "restaurant" wine in that they are a known name and many people are comfortable with drinking them. I tend to BYO for the most part unless I go to a place that has a great, and reasonalby priced wine list. Mainly because my cellar is better than many restaurant lists (of course there are many restaurants here in DC that have much better lists than I can produce from the cellar) and much of what I collect will never show up on a restaurant list because it was made in such small quantity and is highly allocated. These are the wines that are fun to take to a restaurant that has people who know wine. You would be suprised how many times I've had the sommelier come over to see what I brought (but then I normally buy from the list even if I bring something) for him/her to taste. I don't think I've even gotten up and walked out of a restaurant because of its list, but i certainly have not gone back to lots of restaurants because I could find just as good food at a restaurant that did have a decent list. (However, I have to admit that since I live in Montgomery County, MD, I am often forced to eat at restaurants where I love the food but that have nonexistant or horrible lists, but that is the county's fault, not necessarily the restaurant's.) Where I tend to be sure to go to a restaurant just because they have a great list is where there are holes in my cellar, great Burgs, old Bordeaux, etc. Sometimes that gets me in trouble however, because I can't resist that wine I've always wanted to taste, and damn the cost.

                      1. re: dinwiddie

                        Round numbers for the sake of discussion . . .

                        I've always found that -- when it comes to wine lists -- there are three types of restaurants:

                        1) Places which are "tied-in" to a specific wholesaler -- they may carry wines from more than one source, but they rely on one company far too much to have a truly good list; no one company has it all.

                        2) Places that carry only (mostly) the "big names," mark them up like crazy, and think they'll sell a lot because they have all the hard-to-get wines. They may. But the majority of the people I know who are serious about wines (in or out of the trade) will either BYOB, or go there only on someone else's nickel.

                        3) The places who are really "into" wine, and know that a great list need not be huge, have all the big names, nor have sky-high prices. (For examples, think A-16, Bacar and Slanted Door in San Francisco, Lalime's, Pizzaiolo and Chez Panisse in the East Bay, and Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas.)

                        Again, just my $0.02 -- YMMV

                    2. re: stolenchange

                      Depending upon where you live . . .

                      Yes, BYOB is always an option, but I've rarely found a restaurant with a good list that doesn't have a few bargains -- or at least, reasonably priced. FWIW, whenever I find a restaurant with a ridiculously priced wine list, I always let the manager/sommelier know. They are costing themselves business, and -- to generalize -- when restaurants mark up by percentages, they make far less money charging corkage than they do by selling a bottle. So, by not buying a bottle, and explaning why (in a nice, constructive way), they just may realize they are costing themselves money! (It's happened more than once.)

                      Just my $0.02 . . .

                    3. re: zin1953

                      Zin1953 & Chickstein:

                      Since you are/were in the business, do either (or anyone else) recall, and have links to the restaurant business survey from about 8 years back, showing the additional profits realized by reducing the markup on the wine? I alluded to it earlier, and have searched for a link to it. IIRC, it was re-printed in an article in one of the Usenet NG, but I have not found it archived there. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.


                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                        Bill, I *vaguely* remember the article in question, and it certainly echoed my personal experience on the restaurant side of things . . . but I can't remember where I saw it. It may have been originally published as part of Ronn Weigand's newsletter, or . . .

                        I don't know. Let me see if I can find out . . .

                        1. re: zin1953

                          Appreciated. I will continue to seek the source. I've spoken with a number of restauranteurs, and many echo the findings. They price their wines very fairly, sell a good deal more, and make more profit. Of course all of these, whether chef-driven, or even in a resort location, have been folk, who understand the place of good wine, with the food. Most did not have a bunch of MBAs to answer to, so they did what was needed to 1.) sell more wine and 2.) make more profit. In any case, the diner was the real winner!


                        2. re: Bill Hunt

                          Sorry for not responding, I have been traveling this week. I don't have a copy of that article, but I know what you are referring too.

                          1. re: chickstein

                            I'm very patient, so do not worry. When/if you find it, please share a link. Thanks, and hope that the travels have been fruitful.


                          2. re: Bill Hunt

                            When I worked in the restaurant business I always worked for a larger parent company, for better and worse. These large companies like Marriott set there wine budget at a pour cost of 28%. I would always plead with my manager to let me lower the costs of wine and I would try to explain that we would make more money through volume. This was always to no avail. My managers inevitably answered to higher managers who answered to corporate people who said the budget was 28%.