By Dan Berger
Since the national recession in 2008, dining out has been a luxury some folks have a hard time justifying.
For the better part of a decade, many restaurants are taking it on the chin. This occurs every now and then – it happened in 2004 about two years after the collapse of the dot-com end of the high-tech sector and the reaction to the sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Another problem is the price of all fuels as well as the expense of such simple pleasures as water. The California drought has hurt the service of water in restaurants.
The typical upscale restaurant located in a metropolitan city center not only is paying a premium for rent, but also must deal with the fact that parking charges can be exorbitant.
Parking charges in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other metropolitan areas can be so high they are factored into the dining-out experience, usually with negative consequences.
Some folks, wishing to avoid such tariffs, could suggest we go to a more remote café on the theory that the $30 saved on parking can be applied to the price we pay for a bottle of wine.
Yet now, with gas prices as high as they are, we face a not-insignificant sum just getting to that remote café. (The sale of hybrid cars has helped some diners.)
We have been in restaurants lately that are not even half filled on weekends. These are popular places that once were jumping on even Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
We sympathize with the vast numbers of restaurant owners who have worked diligently to place a creative plate of victuals out for those who appreciate fine food. But we also see signs that many of those places that are surviving the current lean dining scene are doing so not by sitting idly by and doing the same old thing.
It isn’t surprising when we see yet another restaurant fail, and recall that it had failed to grow more creative with its wine program, refusing to take a serious look at what it was doing with by-the-glass and bottle sales.
Wine is a key factor in all of this, of course, because it is one of the few areas of the business where the product offers a good, solid profit margin, is not perishable the way bread and butter are, and offers an ambience a lot more upscale than fancy salt-and-pepper shakers.
But getting a stodgy restaurant owner to think outside the boîte is the trick. This is next to impossible for those who once reveled in having members of the local Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs show up on a regular basis, happy to pay hundreds of dollars for an old Bordeaux.
Those days may be passing, so creativity in wine service now offers benefits beyond measure in a stagnant economy.
The vast majority of dining establishments have no need for a vertical of Château Le Pin. But most would do well to watch how they price their wines.
I’ve gone over this before, but it showed up at a Long Beach café recently that offered us an Italian Pinot Grigio I had never heard of before for $32.
We ordered it and it was fine. When I got home, I checked it out on the internet and found that almost everyone who stocked it at a retail shop had it for $9.99 or less.
Even slightly aware wine buyers know that certain wines simply are not worth a premium price, and they will stay away from such items. Compare the $32 restaurant price for a bottle of wine to the $15 for two beers from a local micro-brewery.
As for house wine brands, with names no one ever heard of before, only the uninitiated would choose such a “pig in a poke.”
Best bet these days, for diners (and for restaurants), is to find closeouts of the 2011 red wines from California. Many of these, from an inaccurately maligned vintage, still represent great value in the market because so many of them now are discounted by the trade.
Other great areas of value include wines from South Africa,
Austria, Spain, Portugal, New Zealand, Australia, and areas of France that often are ignored — such as Anjou, Sancerre, and even Muscadet.
In addition to offering good value, they are wines that are not in the mainstream, so usually are priced considerably lower, meaning restaurants can make a decent margin on them and still offer a fine wine to go with the meal.
A counter argument refers back to the Pinot Grigio for which I paid $32. Had I known the café paid $6 at most to get that wine, I would have ordered a beer.