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Wine & Food Advisory
from the Melting Pot of the Pacific

Randal Caparoso The Continuing Restaurant Harangue
© Randal Caparoso
While sitting at a table during a wine judging in San Bernardino last February, one of my fellow tasters - a longtime, respected L.A. restaurateur - turned to me and said:

"I have a bone to pick with you. In Dan Berger's latest newsletter you were quoted to say that in your restaurants you would take back any wine, for no reason at all, if a customer doesn't like it -- even if there's nothing wrong with it. Is this true? If so, I'm sorry to say, you're absolutely crazy!"

Unfortunately for him, I had to confirm that I said that, and that I believe in it 100 percent. While I realize that this policy is not for every restaurateur - especially for those with a significant percent of their wine lists priced in the $100-plus range - my thinking is pretty simple:

Most of the most successful, and thus reputable, retail stores in the world have a standard policy that if a customer is dissatisfied with a purchase, it can be returned anytime, no questions asked. In my mind, the fact that few restaurants stand for this policy explains why the lifespan of most restaurants is so fleeting. Who would feel great about a place, any place, where you are forced to pay for a bad experience?

The experts say that 3 to 5 percent of all wines bottled with natural corks are tainted with bacteria that cause what is called "corkiness" - when a wine tastes more like mildew, wet wood or even dirty sox than anything else. Yet, in most restaurants, far less than 1 percent of wines are actually sent back by discriminating guests. Why? Because the ordinary restaurant customer is simply unaware of what a bad wine tastes like, or else is afraid to complain. This means that restaurants around the world probably serve millions of dollars worth of bad wine! So does it make sense for a restaurateur to complain when, upon rare occasion, a wine is returned?

Regardless of whether or not a wine is "corked," I'm naturally inclined to be sympathetic with any guest who is not enjoying their wine. I don't like to pay for lousy wine - and, especially, for lousy food and service - when I go out. If anything, I'm even more ashamed to see this in our own restaurants.

So why are most restaurants so reluctant to establish more pro-active customer relations policies? Personally, I think it's the nature of restaurateurs to believe that their food, wine and service are beyond reproach, except in the most outrageous circumstances. Face it. Restaurant owners, chefs, and maitre d's tend to be prima donnas, forged by iron clad egos. What other types of people would dare to put their sense of quality and taste on the line, day in and day out? It's the nature of the beast to think that when something is wrong, more likely it's the fault of the guest rather than the restaurant.

Remember the movie, The Big Night, when the character named Primo (what a name for a chef!) says, with all conviction: "To eat good food is to be close to God." In similar fashion, you would think that the wines sommeliers serve is the tinkle of angels! Come to think of it, I often wonder why we have this tradition in restaurants where sommeliers pour wines for people to taste. If the sommeliers are so great, then they should be the ones to taste the wines first. Let the 3 to 5 percent of the wines that taste more like wastewater from hell pass through their lips first. I wonder how many of them would enjoy their living as much?

Dan Berger, who has been around the restaurant block in L.A. himself many a time, puts out a good newsletter to which anyone can subscribe through Info@VintageExperiences.com. In his last issue, one reader who avoids high priced restaurants like the plague commented: "I guess I can understand twice retail in some restaurants, but with some wines, even that is too high." The point she made was concerning normally $15 retail wines that are put on sale in stores for as low as $11.99, but which restaurants persist in selling for as high as $35. Why aren't wholesale discounts passed on to guests in restaurants as they are in retail stores?

If you've been wondering the same, here's some "insider" information:

1. Medium to high range "white tablecloth" fine restaurants typically strive for about three-times markups. This means that if they buy a wine at wholesale for $9 (which would usually retail for around $14), they normally charge $27 for it in the restaurant.

2. This typical three-times-wholesale markup policy, however, doesn't always work out that way, since it is much harder to sell a wine that costs $25 for a restaurant price of $75. So a common restaurant strategy is to actually sell higher cost wines (anything wholesaling over $20) at lower markups, whereas low cost wines (wholesaling for $12 or less) are marked up even higher than three-times. This is why a $10.99 wine in the store (around $7 wholesale) is often sold for as high as $30 in restaurants - the markup was as much as four-times!

3. Because many restaurants markup on such a curve, it is very common to find that the best "values" in fine restaurants are actually those sold in the $55-$95 range, since they tend to have lower markups (often barely two-times) than wines sold in the $25-$45 range.

4. The best values, period, in most fine restaurants tend to be the lesser known, under-appreciated wines of the world. Therefore, you are much more likely to find higher quality for the price in wines such as Rioja from Spain, Carmenere from Chile, Zweigelt from Austria, Pinot Gris from Oregon, or Pinot Blanc from California than you would for popular wine types such as Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. It's only natural for restaurateurs to overcharge for the wines that sell, and to undercharge for slower movers. The upshot? If you like to drink wine in restaurants, learn to love lesser known wines!

5. It's not really fair to compare wines sold "on special" in retail stores to the same wines sold in restaurants, since retailers who merchandise like this are usually buying much large quantities of specific wines for substantial wholesale discounts. A typical restaurateur, however, buys only one case at time, and so usually he has no discount to pass on to the consumer.

6. Last but not least, have you been wondering why you are seeing fewer and fewer wines sold in the $18 to $28 range in fine restaurants these days? This is because this is now considered more or less a "dead zone" - few people, for whatever reason, like to order wines in this price range. In fact, in restaurants that average $30-$45 per "cover," the vast majority of wines sold are in the $35-$50 range. Therefore, it is not an unusual practice for a restaurant to markup a low cost wine which should actually be sold for only $25, to as much as $30. Strangely enough, it is easier to sell a wine in today's restaurants for $30 than it is for $25!

Friendly advice from a restaurateur who's spent more than his share of time on both sides of the table, and who has the extra pounds to prove it!

July 17, 2000

To contact Randy Caparoso, write him at randycaparoso@earthlink.net.

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