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Wine Advisor Express:
Wine list prices

Last night we went out to dinner at a local Italian restaurant called Abruzzi, an attractive if not memorable eatery in a leafy suburb. To go with the meal, I chose a good California wine in an Italian style that I had enjoyed before: Chappellet 1998 Napa Valley Sangiovese.
It was $33.

A couple of weeks ago, we checked out a rather pretentious new franchise steak house in our town, Morton's of Chicago. To wash down our prime aged beef, I selected one of the least expensive acceptable reds on the list: Gallo of Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon.
It was $36.

What's wrong with this picture? Look at the mathematics: The Italian restaurant's wine list asks about 1 1/2 times the $20 local retail price for the Chappellet (actually double the wholesale price that restaurateurs pay for their wine). The steak house marks up the $12 retail price by 300 percent for the Gallo wine (and fully four times the $9 wholesale price).

Most of the restaurateurs I've asked about wine-list pricing justify this kind of profit margin by arguing that they "add value" to the wine by providing cellaring and service. (A similar argument supports charging "corkage" to those who bring their own wine, an option that's not legally available to most wine lovers outside a few happy jurisdictions like New Jersey and California.)

I'm less than persuaded by this argument, frankly. At least in our town, few restaurants maintain cellars, moving wine quickly through the pipeline from wholesaler to wine list to your table; and wine service seldom consists of more than pulling out the cork and giving you a wine glass.

I'm planning to revisit this issue in coming weeks, when I'll offer some of my tips for mining the jewels from overpriced and less-than-inspiring wine lists. But before I do, I would like to hear YOUR ideas. If you have tips or suggestions as to how wine lovers can maximize the enjoyment of dining out with wine without feeling ripped off by the experience - or if you're in the restaurant business and feel that I'm not fairly telling the other side of the story - please drop me a note at, and I'll try to incorporate your points in future articles.

Also, if you would like to discuss this topic with other wine lovers online, we have two relevant topics currently underway in our interactive Wine Travel/Restaurants Forum:

  • "So what's the best wine-friendly formula for wine markup?"

  • "Wine prices at restaurants"

    Express Notes:

    This is Wine Advisor Express, daily edition of The 30 Second Wine Advisor, distributed Tuesdays through Fridays. To change your E-mail address, switch from daily to the weekly (Mondays only) distribution, or for any other administrative matters, E-mail Please be sure to include the exact E-mail address that you used when you subscribed, so we can find your record.

    Thursday, July 12, 2001
    Copyright 2001 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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