Lost in the List
"i'll tell you what you should do," the well-dressed bar regular slurred after his fourth whiskey and water. "you need to get rid of that merlot and pour a cotes du rhone instead."
"yeah, why don't you just have six wines by the glass instead of four?" another regular asked, popping her head into our conversation.
"also, your price for the grgich hills fume is quite a bit more than the place down the street. you'd sell more if you lowered it a little."
"i'm just saying this because my friend was in here last week and she's a wine expert. she was just commenting on the list. that's all."
i'm sure they all mean well and are simply trying to help (read: convince me to put the wines that they-and only they-want on my list). however, i have a feeling that if i were to show up at their respective offices and offer my help in negotiating a contract for their client, or give them some unsolicited tips for their next powerpoint presentation, they'd take offense.
i know wine. there's little else i truly have any depth of knowledge in. and while a wine list at a restaurant may sometimes look like a haphazardly thrown together jumble of bottles that have nothing to do with each other, there's always a method to the madness.
the first thing to remember when you are looking at a wine list is where you are. are you in a trendy bistro in soho? a steakhouse in the financial district? or, in my case, a venerable standard american restaurant in the heart of the theater district? the wine is for everyone who comes through that door. in the case of my restaurant, more than 50 percent of those guests are not new yorkers, and are not "in to wine." every third table asks for a glass of the "house merlot." why, then, would it make any sense not to have one by the glass? for as much as i love the red wines of central austria, you will never see one on my list. because it will never sell. in a trendy soho bistro, however, the clientele generally want more adventurous and esoteric selections.
i actually have a mission statement for my wine list: value-priced, quality wines from around the world, representing the best of both old and new world styles made from well-known varietals. if you look at my wine list, you'd see that every single wine fits that profile.
the by-the-glass list is another matter altogether. in many instances, the way the bar is set up can make it difficult to carry many wines by the glass. there simply may not be enough room. with a by-the-bottle selection, you need only keep two or three extra bottles on hand to avoid leaving the bar in the middle of the rush to retrieve more from the cellar. with by the glass selections, one must keep upwards of six to 10 bottles per seating, per wine. that's a lot of space, and that can keep a by-the-glass list limited.
speaking of space, it's what usually determines a wine's price. as with most products, wine adheres to the well-known "buy more, save more" philosophy. almost all distributors give deeper discounts the more you buy at one time. that's great-unless your wine room is the size of a manhattan closet. wine must be kept at a constant temperature and humidity, which means that building massive wine rooms (especially in an older structure) is very expensive. that means buying wine in smaller batches, which sometimes means higher prices.
these issues are just the tip of the iceberg. i haven't even mentioned the hassle of setting up new accounts with distributors (you think your last credit check was a headache), dealing with delivery drivers who won't show up when you tell them to, renewing liquor licenses? you get the picture.
so the next time you sit down and scoff at the wine list, remember where you are and that you aren't the only one ordering wine that night.
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