Recently I was reading an article on our slow to rebound economy. The writer interviewed an upscale restaurateur who claimed his sales were still off by 60% from a couple of years ago. I have no idea where the restaurant is but that doesn’t seem to be the case in my two cities, Denver, CO and my beloved Austin, TX.
Donna and I spent a little time discussing the restaurateurs claim and agreed that we don’t eat out as much as we did. So we asked why? We came to the conclusion that there are a number of restaurants we like very much but refuse to pay their exorbitant wine mark ups. In my early days of wine collecting (that was a long time ago) in Austin I’ll admit I was spoiled (Henry and Jay, you know who you are). Back then wholesale laws and enforcement were much more lax and I’d buy cases of great wine wholesale, compliments of my restaurant buddies. So very early on I learned the real cost of wine.
Here’s my rant. What the hell am I getting when I pay a restaurant 200% or more than I can buy the exact same wine retail. Sure there is service and ambience and I understand that. But I get the same service and ambience when I buy a $15 dollar bottle for $30 as when I buy a $50 bottle for $100. What do I get for my extra $35 in mark-up? Now add another 20% in tip to that and your $50 wine has cost you $120. Recently I was in a wine bar that offered us a glass of one of our favorite upscale Carneros Chardonnays for $21 or the bottle for $70. I paid $29.99 for the same bottle retail two days before. Give me a break.
I understand that large liquor stores that make big orders pay a bit less that a restaurant or bar that might buy a case or two but sometimes the mark-ups are just plain greedy. The chef who is preparing my meal is like the winemaker, an artist. I hope that the chef will prepare a meal that is better than what I can make at home or at least different. I’m willing to pay for that art. But the restaurant has done nothing to enhance the flavor of the wine. In the example above I’ve paid $70 in mark-up and tip. That’s the price of two or three entrees. The artist (winemaker) is getting none of the mark-up.
What to do. The first thing is to pay attention. Sometimes there are some pretty good deals to be found. One restaurant we frequent has a very healthy markup on their biggest selling and least expensive wines. But as you go up the list the mark-ups become much more reasonable. If you are going to buy 4-5 wines by the glass, there may be a higher end bottle that’s a much better deal. Look for specials. The same restaurant mentioned above has weekend bottle specials that run $40-$70 but are within 10% of retail.
Wine bars often have special nights for discounts. One bar we frequent has big bottle night on Wednesdays. Wines are served by the glass at a near retail price. Look for ½ price bottle nights, usually early in the week or Sundays. A local steak house we like will sometimes get a special deal on big cabs that run around $100 a bottle but will sell the bottles at retail. I know it’s expensive but it’s a good deal for a special occasion.
Here’s the best idea, negotiate. Yes, politely negotiate. I do it all the time and it usually works, especially when wines are marked up excessively. You have to know what you are talking about and it helps if you are a frequent customer. Your chances of success increase when you choose a wine that is not a big seller. The restaurant knows they will sell common brand wines like crazy no matter what. Choose an interesting wine and put your negotiation skills to the test. One last tip, you can always look up the retail price of a wine on your smart phone to give yourself a little negotiating ammunition or to check how good that “special deal” really is.