It’s no secret that buying wine by the glass is about the worst decision a bargain seeker can make. But has a bad deal gotten worse of late?
At Charleston’s finest restaurants, the single-digit wine glass is becoming increasingly scarce. The cheapest glass on the standard red and white lists at The Ordinary, Charleston Grill, Grill 225 and McCrady’s is $10. (The average glass price ranges from $12.12 to $15.66.)
While the notion of an affordable house wine endures at casual restaurants, such as Barsa and Monza, the cost of wine-by-the-glass has crept past cocktail prices at Peninsula Grill, Oak Steakhouse and Circa 1886, among other venues. Having a glass of wine with dinner is no longer the economical choice.
But wine professionals say diners should cheer the availability of better wines, many of which weren’t available during the generic carafe era.
“There’s nicer stuff to be had,” says consultant Sarah O’Kelley, formerly of The Glass Onion. “If it’s expensive by the bottle, it’s going to be expensive by the glass. And with the care being put into these wines, there’s no wonder they cost what they do.”
Wine blogger Jeff Siegel, author of “The Wine Curmudgeon’s Guide to Cheap Wine,” suspects the surge in pricing isn’t merely a reflection of better quality, combined with the longstanding by-the-glass markup. “The wine business wants consumers to trade up from the less expensive wines they bought during the recession, so they’re raising prices to see what consumers will do,” he says.
Siegel maintains restaurateurs also are bumping up prices to make other alcoholic drinks more attractive. Beer and cocktails carry less risk than a by-the-glass program, which requires cracking open bottles of wine that might oxidize before selling out. “And the margins are higher too,” Siegel says.
It’s hard to precisely compare today’s wine prices to wine prices in the past, but a comparison enabled by the Los Angeles Public Library’s menu collection is instructive. In 2000, a Lyonnais restaurant on Melrose Avenue sold salad frisee for $6.25, French onion soup for $6 and boudin blanc for $15. Today at Thomas Keller’s unrelated Beverly Hills restaurant, also called Bouchon, the same items sell for $14, $10.50 and $27.50. That’s an increase of 124 percent, 75 percent and 83 percent, respectively. Yet the average by-the-glass wine price (on a list with glasses ranging from $10-$20, not counting the reserve selections) is 260 percent higher.
As O’Kelley suggests, comparing a 2-year-old Macon-Villages Chardonnay to a Chardonnay from Sonoma’s celebrated Patz & Hall isn’t exactly an apple-to-apple situation. For some diners, though, the newly elevated prices are jarring. Consumer advocate Siegel believes restaurants could lick the nationwide problem of declining on-premise sales by making concessions to those overwhelmed drinkers.
“If the restaurant cares — and, thankfully, some still do — they can find wine to sell for less than $10 a glass, whether a California or South African chenin blanc, a Sicilian red, a Gascon white, or a Spanish red, including Rioja,” Siegel says. “It’s not that there aren’t quality wines to sell for less than $10 a glass, it’s that too many restaurants don’t want to make the effort.”
O’Kelley says she’s come across plenty of $8 glasses worth drinking at local restaurants.
“So many people have really gotten into their beverage programs, so don’t be afraid to utilize them and say ‘what am I getting?’ ” she says.
If a few extra bucks buys the knowledge that a wine is unique to a certain region, she says, the price is likely to go down easier.
“The rule used to be to buy the second-cheapest wine on the list, which was supposed to offer the most value,” Siegel says. “I don’t know if it was ever true, and I don’t know that it’s true now. I’d suggest looking for a style or varietal of wine you like, regardless of producer or region. That way, you’ll have an idea about what it costs at retail, and you can make a better decision about whether you want to pay the restaurant’s price for it.”