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Sound off on restaurant wine pricing
Building a quality wine list is a daunting challenge for any restaurateur these days.
Just think about the many wine regions and grape varieties that have become popular during the last 20 years. Not long ago, if a restaurateur knew about four grape varieties and three or four wine regions, he had it made. In 2001, Wine Spectator published 30 comprehensive wine reports. Our staff blind-tasted and rated some 11,000 wines. In general, wine consumers are more experimental than ever before, always on the lookout for new wines to try.
Today, restaurateurs need to be experts on vintages and wine producers from around the world. They have had to learn which wines to buy, and which to avoid like the plague.
Overall, the restaurant industry -- including owners, managers and sommeliers -- has met the challenge head-on. Restaurants have achieved a level of wine list quality and selection beyond anything we could have hoped for in 1981, the year we created the Grand Award program. These passionate wine professionals have studied wine, visited the wine regions and tasted many wines before making selections for their lists. The better restaurants have hired and trained knowledgeable staffs. For their efforts, we owe these restaurateurs a large debt of gratitude.
The Wine Spectator Restaurant Awards program is proof of this progress. This year's Dining Guide lists a total of 2,866 restaurants from around the world, including a record 670 new winners. You'll find information on 2,406 Award of Excellence winners, 365 winners of the more demanding Best of Award of Excellence, and 95 winners of the Grand Award, our highest honor.
Today, you and I can choose from a vast array of price levels and food styles when we're looking for a restaurant with a good wine list. But out of this most exciting and broad-based development, a trend is emerging that is anti-consumer. And unless this trend is reversed, the goose that has been laying all those golden eggs will simply fly away.
Let me be straightforward in saying what many wine drinkers have been thinking and feeling: Wine prices are out of hand.
In the rising market of the past few years, with demand far exceeding supply, producers of high quality wines have steadily increased prices, in many cases much more than they should have.
As Bordeaux prices rise, California producers raise their prices so that the spread will not get too wide. As California prices rise, Italian prices go up, since their producers also want to build and maintain their international prestige. And so forth. The ripple effect on wine prices moves into high gear!
Another major cause of these high prices is the auction market, especially charity wine auctions, where ridiculous prices have been bid for highly prized collectibles as well as for cult wines. While you can't blame the buyer for donating the money to charity, the producers too often have decided that those prices represent the "new value" of their wines.
Then the restaurateur -- who may have bought the wine at a charity auction in the first place, or read about the high prices being paid at an auction -- adjusts the price on his wine list. Higher, of course.
Well, guess what? The bubble has burst! The rising tide of wine prices is officially over. Consumers have had enough! The big-spending dot-commers are selling their palaces and their yachts. Wine prices are coming down. Sales of wines that cost $30 or more at retail ($50 or more at restaurants) are steadily slowing down. Hopefully, consumers will be able to find quality and value more easily in the months ahead than they have for the past five or six years.
Now it is time for restaurateurs to join the trend, and reprice the wines on their lists to more realistic levels. For restaurants that have been particularly aggressive in their pricing, we could be talking about decreases in the 20 percent to 30 percent range. In general, reductions of 15 percent to 20 percent seem appropriate. Those restaurateurs who have not succumbed to aggressive pricing in recent years deserve our wholehearted patronage.
It's a tough economy out there, and it's time to give wine lovers a break. We have gone along for the ride. Now it's time to be rewarded for our loyalty. Wine lovers eat out all the time. We order wine with most of our meals. Many restaurateurs, on the other hand, have bulging cellars stuffed with aging wine. Lower your prices, and increase your wine sales.
You'll be happier, and wine lovers will have dining experiences that put smiles on their faces. It's the best way to keep the golden goose happy and healthy.
Marvin R. Shanken
Editor and Publisher
P.S.: If you wish to comment on restaurant wine prices, please go to the forum section of our Web site.
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