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A New Pricing Model for Restaurant Wines

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No one can say at what precise moment wine bars became cool all across America. They were once the kiss of death, a sure-fire path straight to bankruptcy court.

This was a mystifying fate for what seemed a grand idea: a gathering place focused on good wines by the glass, with a few nibbles for background noise. Or perhaps a wine-centric restaurant that serves decent bistro fare with a killer wine selection.

Well-traveled wine enthusiasts knew Europe abounded with successful working models, from Willi's Wine Bar in Paris to Bottega del Vino in Verona to Enoteca Ferrara in Rome.

Willi's annual bottle art wine posters are iconic testimony to the staying power of the genre. Willi's opened in 1980 and continues strong to this day. The posters are collected by wine lovers the world over. The wine list draws its inspiration from France's Rhone Valley, though Bordeaux, Burgundy and other regions of France enjoy representation. By the way, the food's not too shabby.

Opening at about the same time in Verona, Italy, Bottega del Vino unveiled an impressive collection of 80,000 bottles, with 60 to 80 selections poured by the glass every night. During the annual Italy wine show, Bottega del Vino is standing room only without a reservation. Beware the bow-tied waiter elbowing through the crowd with an armload of balloon-shaped crystal stemware! By the way, the food's not too shabby.

Rome's Enoteca Ferrara came along in 1999, offering much the same ambiance and conviviality but with a twist — a wine shop on the premises. Situated in the chic Trastevere neighborhood, Ferrara parlayed upscale cuisine, an extensive selection of wine and the hip, young crowd of one of Rome's most fashionable districts into enduring success. You guessed it, the food's not too shabby.

Until recently, America just didn't get it. Perhaps the stress of having to say Chateauneuf-du-Pape out loud was too much. Perhaps it was fear of the geeky wine waiter, scowling at the uninformed behind that phony smile. Maybe, though I doubt it, no one had quite figured out how to do it right.

I choose to believe it's a simple matter of maturity. Younger Americans of legal drinking age have grown up with wine; their parents and grandparents, not so much. A wine culture has emerged that has both stunned and excited the culinary world. Every other new restaurant that opens is obliged to tack the words "wine bar" at the end of its name. Nothing capitalizes better than capitalism!

While once they weren't even part of the conversation, today wine bars are poised to set the trends that will guide the wine industry for years to come. Wines such as Gruner Veltliner, Albarino, Grenache, Cotes-du-Rhone Villages Lirac, Torrontes, Malbec, Jumilla, Prosecco, Nero d'Avola, et al, would be nowhere in America without the push they've had from wine bars, which go to great lengths to offer selections from the road less traveled.

The latest wrinkle to the traditional American wine bar is the wine shop within.

The idea is hardly new, having existed in Europe for many years. Before Ferrara in Rome, there was Juveniles, just around the corner from Willi's in Paris. Juveniles is little more than a wine shop with a small kitchen in the back and a few dining tables scattered between the bins of wine. Doubtless there were similar enterprises throughout France and Italy before Juveniles. I might add, the food at Juveniles isn't too shabby.

San Diego restaurateur Ed Moore embraced the concept after one of his ventures, a chic seafood restaurant, failed. A Paris-trained chef, Moore has owned several fine-dining and less ambitious bistro-style restaurants. A serious oenophile, Moore created The 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro only after it became apparent San Diego didn't really need another seafood spot.

Moore's goal was to sell wine. The food was an afterthought. In the beginning, it was mostly small plates that were easy to prepare and serve. His twist was a $5 corkage fee. A diner could peruse the wine bins and select a wine. And for the retail price plus $5, a diner could have the wine served with a meal.

Such a transaction might be small potatoes in Europe, where direct sales are allowed, but in America this is huge.

America has a three-tier system. So the winery takes a markup, the distributor takes a markup and the restaurant or wine merchant takes a markup.

Restaurants typically get the worst break on price; wine merchants the best, for they purchase in much greater quantity. Foodies of America are conditioned to restaurant wines that are marked up double or triple retail. Thus, a $25 wine might fetch $45 to $65 in most American restaurants. At 3rd Corner, the $25 wine is served for $30.

So, while enjoying a $14.99 Lirac blanc for $19 over lunch recently at the new 3rd Corner in Palm Desert, Ca., I had an epiphany. I realized there is a reason Moore's three wine bars are chronically packed. The crowds are there primarily to dine. Yet they have chosen this spot because they love wine, and here, finally, they can order a superb bottle of wine that doesn't cost twice as much as the meal.

In my perfect world, all restaurants would be wine bars in spirit. Wines would be priced to encourage consumption. If all restaurants adopted the 3rd Corner pricing model, more second and third bottles would be sold to large parties. More high-end wines would be sold. And, in the end, more wine enthusiasts and even casual oenophiles would dine out.

This would be good for business, no? And I might add, it would help if the food weren't too shabby!

BEST VALUE

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value. The numerical evaluation is a direct reflection of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

J Vineyards & Winery 2009 Pinot Gris, California ($15) — You would be hard pressed to find a classier summer white for the price. This lovely vintage of Pinot Gris from J shows lovely aromas of tropical fruit and pear, with zesty citrus notes and nary a whiff of oak. It's cool and refreshing, but with enough acidity and body to tackle light fish dishes or sushi. Rating: 92.

TASTING NOTES

Dry Creek Vineyard 2006 'The Mariner,' Dry Creek Valley ($40) — DCV's red meritage is invariably a good wine that reflects the sunny conditions of the warm Dry Creek Valley. This '06 exhibits lush blackberry fruit, fatness through the mid-palate, with hints of spice cedar on the finish. It finishes slightly hot, though the stated alcohol is but 14.5 percent, which is modest by today's conventions. Still, it's an outstanding bottle of wine for the price and will no doubt deliver exceptional drinking pleasure over the next five to seven years. Rating: 92.

Sojourn 2008 Pinot Noir Gap's Crown, Sonoma Coast ($48) — The intensely perfumed nose alone sold me on this wine. It's floral and spicy, followed by notes of rhubarb and strawberry, with beautifully integrated tannins and a persistent finish. There's a hint of tea leaf, as well. The oak is barely noticeable except for the warmth it lends. This is another outstanding effort from this vineyard for this producer. Rating: 95.

Sojourn 2008 Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast ($48) — A savory, flavorful Pinot from Sojourn, despite its lightness in color. The Sangiacomo offers layers of dark and red fruits, brown spices and firm tannins. I'm far from certain this wine has the concentration to be in for the long haul, but its pleasure index is very high for near-term consumption. Classy and elegant. Rating: 94.

Sojourn 2008 Pinot Noir Rodgers Creek Vineyard, Sonoma Coast ($48) — Earthy and savory, this Burgundian-style '08 Rodgers Creek exhibits dark fruits, spice, nuances of tea leaf and leather, with fine tannins, a hint of minerality and excellent persistence through the finish. This wine should age nicely over the next five years, but it's beautiful at the moment. Rating: 95.

Sojourn 2008 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast ($39) — Reluctant as I am to describe a $39 wine as a value, Sojourn's Sonoma Coast Pinot qualifies. It's a world-class Pinot at a modest price, considering its competition. This beautifully structured wine exhibits notes of cherry and strawberry, with hints of sweet spice and tea leaf. The tannins are supple. A bit light in color, but it hardly lacks in flavor. Rating: 91.

Swanson Vineyards 2008 Pinot Grigio, Napa Valley ($21) — Pinot Grigio isn't one of California's stellar performers, but a handful of vintners get it right. When it's right, it's pretty darn good. Swanson's entry in the PG category is attractive on the nose, with the lush aroma of white peach. It offers notes of pear on the palate and shows good minerality, with a clean finish. Rating: 90.

To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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1 Comments | Post Comment
J Pinot Gris is the best brunch wine ever.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Emily
Mon Aug 23, 2010 11:59 AM
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