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Remembering a California Wine Game Changer

Ernie Van Asperen shocked the competition with his restaurant wine prices and drew a blueprint for California négociants
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Mar 12, 2012 3:30pm ET

Ernie Van Asperen, who died last month, set the restaurant business on its ear in the 1970s when he started selling wines in his two Marin County eateries at retail price.

The one I recall, the Dock in Tiburon, was often the first happy-hour stop for businessmen returning by ferry from working in San Francisco. Windjammer, named for Van Asperen's passion for yachting, had the same pricing policy.

Bay Area restaurateurs took a dim view of Van Asperen's pricing, but his reasoning was two-fold: He felt retail markup was a sufficient profit margin, and he knew that Marinites, living in an upscale wine-drinking community, would embrace the concept. He figured, too, that sales would soar, which they did, and that increased volume made up for the narrower margins.

Van Asperen initiated his wine-list pricing at a time when California wine was just catching on, and diners were switching from liquor to wine.

When Van Asperen and his wife, Virginia, moved to Napa Valley, they presided over an empire of Ernie's Wine and Liquor stores, numbering 80 at its height. Besides selling inexpensive wine under the Ernie's label, Van Asperen started Round Hill, another négociant label that also crushed some of its own grapes.

At the time, Van Asperen played the insider's card and capitalized on the wine and grape oversupply in Napa that started in the 1970s when more vineyards were planted.

He knew all the big winery owners and knew that they would make more wine than they could bottle under their own labels. His wines, such as the 1978 Cabernet, held its own against many of the higher profile, higher-priced Napa Cabs.

Even Round Hill's 1983 Reserve Cabernet and Merlot (both 92 points, $9 and $7, respectively) were standouts in a difficult vintage.

I'm not sure any restaurants sell wine at retail price anymore. Some do recognize that very modest markups increase sales, however.

As for négociants, their business ebbs and flows with bulk wine availability. California has effectively drained the oversupply that accumulated during the past few vintages and prices for even the least expensive wines will increase. In 2011, the biggest négociants had their grape prices locked in early, knowing that the 2011 crop would be short. Still, most vintners make more wine than they need, and that's the lifeblood of California's négociants. They can thank Van Asperen for showing them how it's done.

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  March 13, 2012 2:07am ET
I love this approach. I may regret this, but Passionfish in Pacific Grove is about the closest I've ever come to this model. Great food, almost retail wine, and $5 corkage that gets donated. What a great place!
Josh Moser
Sunnyvale, CA —  March 13, 2012 12:52pm ET
Troy - Indeed, Van Asperen took an interesting approach to pricing his wines in restaurants. You should go check out Gulfstream in Century City, Houston's in Pasadena or Bandera in Brentwood. These restaurants are owned by the Hillstone Restaurant Group. Hillstone's philosophy is to price their wines $5 to $25 over retail, and they don't charge a corkage fee. If you look at the list though you will see that there is not a reason to bring your own wine b/c of all the compelling options. If you are in Napa you should duck into the Rutherford Grill which is owned by the Hillstone Group. For example, they have the '08 Larkmead, Napa Valley, C/S on the list for $72 and it retails for $60...but the problem is you can't find it at a retailer. Also, the last time I went to Market in St. Helena they priced all their wines at $15 over retail.

Josh Moser
Founder of VinoServant
Howard L Barto
Danville, CA —  March 14, 2012 1:09am ET
Ditto for Passion Fish Restaurant in Pacific Grove, CA.
The wine is so reasonably priced there and the selection vast that you can try something hard to find and not feel like you've been robbed.
I usually take wine when I dine out, but not to Passion Fish because of their reasonable pricing.
I'm sure their pricing policy has been successful.
Joseph S Barrera
Cazadero, CA —  March 14, 2012 5:44pm ET
I haven't been there for a while but Michael Chiarello's restaurant Botega(sp?) was selling wine at about 1 1/4 retail. Interestingly, I saw Michael talking with a Mondavi and I believe that he was trying to talk Michael out of this pricing approach.

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