Tough Times Call for More From 'Restaurant Service'

By Dan Berger

May 2, 2009 4 min read

With the economy in free fall, with millions of people on a budget, and with wine moving from an optional purchase to a luxury, a number of once-treasured lifestyle events are now hard to justify.

Dining out is one of them.

It's not that we can't afford a couple of $13 entrees, two $5 salads, and a shared $7 appetizer. By themselves, that would get us out the door for well under $50. But regular readers of this column know we have, alas, left out one rather essential item.

The standard markup for a bottle of wine in most restaurants is twice the retail price. Assume that a wine sells in a store for $25. We're being asked to pay $50 for that same bottle in the cafe.

This means that the under-$50 meal is now nearly $100. That has left many restaurants with a lot of empty chairs on midweek nights; some are light on weekend nights, too. It's not a happy time.

What I have yet to see is a trend to lure customers by lowering wine prices. Look, restaurant owners pay about 33 percent less than retail to get a bottle of wine. Their ?twice retail? price means they're making three times their cost per bottle.

Remember that $25 bottle of wine from above? Restaurants pay less than $17 a bottle for it. So at $50, their profit is more than $33.

I have seen a few places that discount wines on Wednesday nights — that sort of thing. But it is generally haphazard.

Restaurateurs argue that the added charge for their wines you get lovely stemware (but that jelly jar with a stem isn't very elegant, is it?) and proper service.

Let's hold it right there. Proper service? Excuse my guffaw.

In the vast majority of restaurants, two things occur that have nothing to do with proper wine service.

— White wines are usually served way too cold.

— Red wines are usually served too warm.

I have often ordered a fine white wine only to find it was cold enough to cauterize my tonsils. The only reason to chill a white wine to near-freezing temperatures is that it is so bad the temperature will mask its awfulness.

White wines of character should be served at 55 degrees Fahrenheit or so, to allow for the subtle aromas and nuances of fruit character in the taste to be visible. Taken out of a 40-degree refrigerator, a white wine is mute and has nothing to say to the diner.

Moreover, it's one of the great myths of wine to say that red wine ought to be served at ?room temperature.? The origin of the phrase came from the French ?a chambre,? which refers to the chateau, sans central heating.

When a red is served warm, it's usually insipid and shows its alcohol. I suggest 60 degrees, or ?cellar temperature,? which allows the wine to show some of its balance and subtlety.

The fact that so few restaurants know this makes their claim of ?fine wine service? a lie.

Wine of the Week: 2006 Clos du Val Ariadne, Napa Valley ($21) — Clos du Val has made this semillon-sauvignon blanc blend for years, and this vintage is one of the finest ever. Subtlety is its calling card, with faint hints of lemon peel, hay, and a subtle spice. The fact that this wine was sealed with a screwcap made it slightly backward when it was released months ago. And now that the 2007 is on the market, some may go for the younger wine. Resist the temptation. This wine needed the time in bottle to develop amazing complexity.

Dan Berger resides in Sonoma County, Calif. Berger publishes a weekly newsletter on wine and can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Dan Berger and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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