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.