Howard Rosencrans makes his living combing the stock market for hidden values. But ask Rosencrans, president of New York investment research boutique Value Advisory, to do the same on a restaurant wine list, and he's no longer a master of the universe. "Selecting a wine can be incredibly daunting," Rosencrans says. "There's no uniformity and, price-wise, it's just about the biggest crap shoot on earth."
Such is the maddening world of restaurant wine, where even a savvy exec like Rosencrans can end up clueless. One reason: There are few "deals" on wine lists. Unlike a local wine store, restaurant prices usually include big premiums to help pay for the serving staff and the real estate. Many restaurateurs use high wine prices to keep food prices low. And, yes, a few recognize that, once a diner is seated, they have a captive market -- and price accordingly.
All this can translate into 100-to-200% markups over the retail price of most wines, with generally the biggest premiums on the least expensive wines. A 2003 Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio that retails at $9 costs $24 at Washington D.C.'s Old Ebbitt Grill, for instance. So it's up to the diner to develop strategies to get the most grape for the buck.
Finding value in wine is more than just selecting the lowest-priced bottle. "Value means the quality of the wine meets or is under the price," says Ann Davis, wine and beverage manager for Hilton Hotels' restaurants, including Finn & Porter and St. Louis Fish Market.
Most of us -- especially those who entertain for business -- loathe the prospect of frantically searching for value on a list while dinner guests and sommeliers solemnly await our pronouncement. A little sleuthing before you leave home can ease the anxiety. Michael Green, wine consultant to Gourmet magazine, suggests you view a restaurant's wine list on the Internet or have it faxed to you in advance. "A menu is often one page and can be perused in three to five minutes, but a wine list can be a dozen pages," he says. That extra time will also allow you to compare retail prices and reviews on Web sites such as zachys.com, sokolin.com or winespectator.com.
If you arrive at the restaurant hot and parched, don't sit down to the table and quickly order wine. You'll probably drink more, but enjoy the wine less. Wine should be savored and used to complement the taste of your meal, not simply to slake your thirst, brewski-style. Instead, starting with a $7 bottle of water for the table could save you having to buy an extra $70 bottle of chardonnay later.
When you open the wine list, look for something familiar, which you can use as a mental price reference. Widely carried wines such as Robert Mondavi Napa Valley chardonnay (about $23 retail) or nonvintage Veuve Clicquot Champagne (about $40 retail) are good for this. Paul Birchall, general manager of the Luxe Hotels in Beverly Hills and Bel Air, Calif., considers double the retail price of a wine he recognizes to be good value. "Much above that -- and there are restaurants that charge up to four times the retail price -- you're just being stung," he says.
You can often save big by trying a bottle made from a less expensive grape. With whites, a sauvignon blanc or a pinot gris often works just as well with fish or light pastas as a chardonnay. At 21 Club in New York, for instance, you could safely substitute a $38 Hunter's Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2002 for the $80 Grgich Hills Chardonnay without losing much zest. For reds, consider a shiraz (also known as syrah), zinfandel, or Argentine malbec instead of the usual pricey cabernet sauvignon. One smart swap at Washington's Ceiba: the $26 Altos Las Hormigas Malbec for the Estancia Cabernet Sauvignon at $38.
Even if you're wedded to a particular grape, you can often hold down the cost by buying from a less celebrated region. Australian chardonnays, for example, can easily be 20% cheaper than comparable American bottles. Lower-priced New Zealand sauvignon blancs may even be of better quality than their U.S. counterparts. "It's like buying an apartment in Brooklyn instead of Manhattan," says Green. "There's better value."
Avoid ordering marquee wines such as a first-growth Bordeaux or California cult cabernets. They're best left to collectors, the truly well-heeled, or Tyco-style expense account drinkers. A bottle of 1983 Chateau Margaux that retails for $379 at D. Sokolin Co. in Bridgehampton, N.Y., costs $750 at 21.
If one diner at your table wants to try a white while everyone else drinks red, try a half-bottle rather than buying a whole bottle for one person. But plan wisely: You'll pay at least a 10% premium for the smaller quantity. So if you order a second half-bottle, you've wasted money. The same can hold true when ordering multiple drinks by the glass.
Don't forget that sommeliers or even your servers can guide you -- if you give them proper direction. Be sure to indicate what food you're ordering, the type of grape or style (fruity, dry, etc.) you prefer, and what you'd like to pay. If you're leery of talking price in front of dinner guests, Green suggests you "discreetly point to the price of a bottle rather than to the name of the wine and ask the server to recommend something like this." All but the most dense waiters will get the message and suggest bottles near that price, while your guests will be none the wiser.
Some diners finesse the situation by frequenting restaurants that allow you to bring your own bottles. Girasole, an Italian charmer in Los Angeles' tony but laid back Larchmont neighborhood, lets you grab a bottle at the wine shop next door. Even Chez Panisse, the Berkeley (Calif.) restaurant considered one of the original temples of nouvelle American cuisine and which boasts an ample cellar, lets you bring your own for a $20-per-bottle corkage fee, with a maximum of two bottles.
Be careful. Restaurants charge up to $30 for corkage, and some frown on the practice if the bottle you bring is on their wine lists. So call ahead to check. Moreover, unless you're bringing a pricey bottle, it's not worth the effort if there's a stiff corkage fee and it offers a range of its own bottles at less than $45.
Just remember when perusing any wine list that high quality and high price are not synonymous. "You don't have to spend $100 to have a good wine," says Jerry Evans, owner of the historic Jacksonville Inn in Jacksonville, Ore. which has more than 2,000 wines on its list. Indeed, Evans is currently praising a surprisingly inexpensive $14.95 Columbia Crest Reserve Shiraz on his list as an excellent food wine. Evans figures that by pushing value to guests, his restaurant will have more satisfied customers and sell more wine. Now that's smart planning.
By James E. Ellis