A Haven for Wine Devotees
By James Laube, senior editor
It's an unlikely haven of sane wine prices, but it exists.
It's located in a surreal site, created ages ago. Steep, rugged, stone-faced mountains make a chiseled backdrop on the high-desert eastern side of California's Sierra Nevada range. People retreat here for summer vacations, to camp, hike, canoe, fish, ride horses or stargaze. In the winter, they ski and play snow games.
There, among Spartan groves of aspen trees in the great, wide outdoors, sits this otherwise inconspicuous wine oasis -- The Restaurant at Convict Lake. It's located a scant 2 miles west of U.S. Highway 395, which runs along the Sierra Nevada, through the Mammoth Mountain area and its hundreds of picture-postcard lakes. The towns here go by names like Lone Pine, Independence and Mono. To the west is Yosemite; to the east is Death Valley. This is territory for rugged individualists.
The owners of The Restaurant at Convict Lake are of that ilk. You don't start a restaurant in these parts without deep inner confidence and keen survival instincts. It's been 10 years since Mike and Penny Melin opened their restaurant, and it's a thriving business, thanks to chef Mark Eoff's creative continental cuisine and a wine list to match.
Theirs isn't the greatest list in the world, but it has some of the most reasonable and affordable prices you'll ever see dining out. I had forgotten that the Melins' 150-selection list had won a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, so after my friend Dixie booked reservations, I flinched at the possibility that our wine bill alone would be staggering. Our party of eight ended up drinking several bottles with our four-course meal, and why not? Ridge Zinfandel Sonoma Station 1996 was $22. Saintsbury Pinot Noir 1997 was $29. Seghesio Zinfandel 1996 was $19. Even prices for the reserve wines weren't terribly inflated -- Robert Mondavi Cabernet Napa Valley Reserve 1991, $70; Cheval-Blanc 1985, $130.
"I mostly buy out old wine cellars. I don't always pay wholesale or stockpile cases unless I plan to keep the wine around," says Mike Melin. That allows him to pick and choose even single bottles, and he changes his list three or four times a week. "With lower prices, the sales go way up," he says proudly.
As I studied the list, it suddenly hit me like an icy hailstorm in August: These folks want to sell wine. They don't tease you with mouthwatering delights priced two to three times higher than retail. They're happy earning a modest profit.
The Restaurant at Convict Lake isn't the only restaurant that believes in sensible pricing, but there are far too few dining spots that really know how to cater to wine lovers.
Aside from bad corks and poor storage, restaurant wine pricing is one of the biggest beefs of wine drinkers. Too many places hike prices up two to three times more than an entr¿e. That often makes buying wine prohibitive, especially for a larger party that wants to drink several different kinds of wine during the course of a meal.
The Melins are just as keen on newer vintages, realizing that most of us like our wines young and fresh. They know that selling older wines involves the risk that they might be overly mature and might not taste as good as a younger version. They're also aware of the restaurant's costs associated with buying and aging wines that won't be sold for several years. I can understand a high-rent Manhattan restaurant needing to charge high wine prices. But many eateries aren't in that fix.
Even classy restaurants run into the problem of overpricing older wines merely because they've cellared them for years. They set prices based on a wine's rarity, not its quality. Many restaurants, in fact, continually raise prices for older wines without knowing whether the wines are more dead than alive. What good is a rare classic if it isn't worth drinking? Instead of raising prices, restaurateurs should lower the prices and encourage people to drink the wines before they're murky and brown. When a restaurant lists a wine for an exorbitant fee, it's in effect saying that the wine isn't for sale -- or, "Buy at your risk, not ours."
I don't like that, and that's why the attitude at The Restaurant at Convict Lake is so refreshing. Its wines are for sale.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from senior editor James Laube. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)