Wine lovers who dine out often tell me that their greatest complaint about restaurant wine lists is outrageous pricing.
A close second is terrible selection.
One reader said he thought restaurant owners must think all their patrons are idiots “for thinking we will pay $35 for wines that we can easily get in stores for $12.”
Another said he almost never found anything he was willing to drink unless it was $50, “and that’s just too much to pay for really ordinary wines.”
After high pricing for what readers call mediocre-to-poor wine, the second most frequent complaint I hear is about selection, mainly at restaurants that offer a lot of the same things, such as multiple chardonnays.
Two readers asked, “How many chardonnays do we need? Why do restaurants think they have to carry five or six chardonnays when they are all about the same?”
Also, far too many restaurants offer the same sort of wines, and part of the reason is that most restaurant owners know so little about wine that they rely heavily on wholesale sales representatives to put their lists together for them.
The result: many lists with remarkably similar wines at pricing that fits a formula designed to make as much money as the traffic will bear.
A major problem with such lists is incorrect (or poor) vintages.
The best ways to beat the system is to actively pursue a policy similar to one I developed years ago.
Start by looking at a restaurant’s wine program well before you show up. By going on the restaurant’s web site, it may be possible to determine days in advance which wines are candidates for your dinner. If a listed wine is rare or unusual, call the establishment, ascertain that it actually has the wines you are interested in, and ask how many bottles are in inventory.
Search the internet for prices to determine which wines are the best values.
Inquire about how much the restaurant charges for corkage.
It is common to pay $10 to $15 per bottle for the privilege of bringing in your own wine. We never bring in a wine the restaurant carries, and we always bring in a wine we know will complement the food it serves. (In Asian places, we usually bring a bottle of dry riesling since few restaurants offer such fare, and even if they do, it’s usually not very good.)
Corkage in expensive restaurants that ranges up to $30 a bottle may be an option if the list is outrageously priced and you have a mature bottle that is far better than the young, immature wines on the list.
Call the restaurant to find out if its online list is up-to-date. I’ve occasionally found that it takes three or four calls to reach the proper person to ask about this, but it can pay dividends. A high-quality Marin County bistro recently added two new wines, which were exciting and well priced.
Sometimes the best value is a wine offered only by the glass. We discovered this with a dry rosé at a San Francisco seafood house last summer, and it turned out to be a hit.