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 nice thing about email is that it isn’t hard to keep track of messages. Since diners often write me after reading online restaurant reviews I do for various websites, I informally keep track of their peeves, and pricing is still No. 1.
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 way 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 website, 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.
— When ordering wines by the glass, always ask to see the bottle. A few years ago at a highly regarded Nob Hill hotel penthouse bar, we ordered two glasses of a highly regarded sauvignon blanc. What came was not what we ordered.
I asked to see the bottle. What came out was an inferior wine. We sent the glasses back — and the waiter then returned with the right wine. He said the bartender had accidentally switched the wines.
In my experience, this happens a lot more than just accidentally. It’s called bait and switch.
When Kevin Zraly was running the remarkable wine program at the late, lamented Windows on the World restaurant in New York’s World Trade Center, he or his staff poured every by-the-glass wine at patrons’ tables from bottles opened that day.
I can’t count the number of times a wine I ordered by the glass turned out to be “accidentally” something other than what was on the list.
Live by the simple rule, “Trust no one.” There is too much money to be made here.
Wine of the Week: 2016 Toad Hollow Dry Rosé of Pinot Noir, Sonoma County, “Eye of the Toad” ($15): Always an amazingly stylish pink wine, this just-released, refreshing and fetchingly dry rosé has an aroma similar to wines from France’s Provence region, with cherry and strawberry notes and a hint of watermelon. There is virtually no sugar here, so the wine will work with a wide array of seafood dishes.