One of the regular themes here is that restaurants do a lousy job of selling wine to their customers. And now the Wine Curmudgeon has hard evidence to go along with his whining.
The new Texas Zagat guide, released yesterday, notes that only about one-third of the state's diners order a bottle of wine with their meal. Almost half, on the other hand, order wine by the glass.
I suppose one can look at this positively -- that 85 percent of Texans who eat in restaurants order wine with their meal. But the Wine Curmudgeon didn't get where he is by being positive. And, in fact, that's looking at the numbers through rose'-colored glasses.
That's because restaurant goers who complete Zagat surveys are sophisticated diners who spend money when they go out to eat -- "frequent, knowledgeable consumers," says the guide. In other words, they aren't people whose idea of wine is a glass of white zinfandel at Applebee's or Chili's, and this is borne out by the most popular restaurants in the survey. In Houston, it was Mark's, in Dallas, Abacus, and in San Antonio, La Reve -- all places where you can spend $100 a person without any effort at all. (Vespaio, the most popular Austin restaurant, is a bit cheaper.)
So why are so many of these sophisticated diners buying wine by the glass? Because too many restaurant wine lists are overpriced and underwhelming. Who wants to pay $75 for a decent bottle of wine that costs $25 at the wine store? Or $25 for that grocery store bottle of white zinfandel?
Some progress has been made, but I still see too many lists that look like they were put together by a used car salesman in a plaid sport coat. I ate at a popular Dallas restaurant a couple of nights ago that fit that description all too well -- mostly very ordinary wine that was marked up three and four times its retail price. It may look good on a balance sheet, but charging someone $28 for a bottle of Ecco Domani pinot grigio is not going to advance the cause of wine in the restaurant business.
I lose this argument every time I make it, but I'll do it until I run out of breath: The way to sell more wine is to cut prices. You'll sell someone who drinks two glasses a bottle if you charge $50 for that $75 wine, and you'll sell two bottles of it if you cut the price by the same amount.
But how set is the restaurant business in its ways? I did a magazine story a few years ago about wine prices, and talked to a manager at a Florida resort who cut wine prices by one-third during the off-season and almost doubled sales. So what did his bosses do when the season started again? Raised prices. "It was like they didn't even notice what had happened," he said.