Gouging on Wines by the Glass
By Jeff Morgan, West Coast editor
It was lunchtime, and I'd just ordered the soft-shell crabs stuffed with spicy Thai rock shrimp at a marvelous San Francisco Bay area restaurant. My lunch date went for a wood oven-baked pizza topped with Fontina cheese and prosciutto. We each wanted a glass of wine. I wanted white; she wanted red. So we looked on the wine list for wines by the glass.
The selection was terrific, but the prices were outrageous. Handley Chardonnay Dry Creek Valley 1995 for $6.75, Bannister Chardonnay Russian River Valley Allen Vineyard 1995 for $9.25, Ridge Zinfandel Sonoma Station 1995 for $7.50 and Chateau Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley for $6.75 were just a few of our options. The cheapest glass of white was Jekel Chardonnay Arroyo Seco 1995 for $5; the cheapest red was a low-end Chianti at $4.50.
The pizza cost $9. My soft-shell crabs weighed in at a reasonable $12. Who in his right mind would pay nearly as much for a glass of wine as he would for an entire working-day lunch?
No one that I know would. And so what's the point of a wine-by-the-glass program, if not to make interesting wines available to customers who don't require a full (or half) bottle? Here's where the greed factor comes in to play.
A restaurant pours roughly four to five ounces of wine per glass. That's five to six glasses per bottle. I'll be conservative and say five. Jekel Chardonnay wholesales to a restaurant for just under $10 per bottle. Five glasses sold at $5 per glass comes to $25 -- two and a half times the wholesale price, or a 60 percent profit margin. The Handley Chardonnay would yield $33.75 per five-glass sale -- a nearly 70 percent profit margin of $22.75. And our luncheon establishment stood to make $31.25 off the Bannister Chardonnay -- a tidy 70 percent profit on the bottle's $15 wholesale price. Red wine prices reflected a similar pricing strategy.
These prices are too high. In fact, I would call them obscene. This is the kind of marketing philosophy that drives people to drink iced tea or even soda pop with a meal that's screaming for a glass of wine. It's an insult to the diner as well as to a meal prepared by any talented, hardworking chef.
Many restaurants complain that they end up throwing out spoiled wines from unfinished bottles poured by the glass. It doesn't surprise me that sales are sluggish, considering what they are charging. If a reasonable price were placed on these wines, I bet the bottles would empty at an astonishing rate.
Wouldn't a 30 percent profit margin be satisfactory for a wine that turned into a high-volume seller? Jekel Chardonnay could be sold at $3 per glass, Handley at $3.25 and Bannister -- a highly limited production -- at $4.50.
I won't tell you what restaurant inspired these thoughts. It wouldn't be fair to single anyone out, when scores of eateries do the same thing. When will they get with the program and stop fleecing their clientele on wines by the glass?
Perhaps never, if they don't hear from the people who make a difference -- their clients. Persistent but polite prodding from regular customers just might cause a restaurant to reconsider its wine-by-the-glass pricing. Chefs need to make a living too, of course, so let's not begrudge them a profit. But when the size of that profit defeats the purpose of their pursuit -- in this case to offer you a glass of wine in sync with the cost of menu selections -- something has gone wrong.
Hopefully, smart chefs and restaurant owners can still learn from their mistakes. Today's greed factor is discouraging moderate wine consumption while denying wine lovers an opportunity to experiment with new labels they might hesitate to buy by the bottle. It's time for restaurants to stop gouging the consumer on wines by the glass.
What do you think? Post your reactions to Jeff's comments on the Pet Peeves bulletin board, and vote in this week's poll, which asks "Do restaurants and wine bars charge too much for wines by the glass?"
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 roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from West Coast editor Jeff Morgan. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.