I just found Juliet Chung’s fascinating article on wine pricing at restaurants, which appeared in the WSJ on Friday. Here’s a couple of datapoints for you. A bottle of 2004 Opus One will cost you $195 at Houston’s in San Francisco, or $425 at NoMI in Chicago;
a 1999 Dom Pérignon Champagne is $155 at Legal Sea Foods in Washington, $595
at Per Se in New York. And a 2003 Screaming Eagle is $1,500 at Jardiniere in San Francisco, which seems like a lot of money until you realize it’s $5,435 at Prime in Las Vegas.
The article gives a few reasons for the discrepancies: wholesalers charge different rates in different states, for instance, and restaurants with few tables and high overheads will have larger markups than those with economies of scale and lots of turnover.
But the biggest lesson from the article, at least for me, was implicit rather than explicitly stated: never order fine wine in any hotel restaurant, whether it’s in Chicago (NoMI is in the Park Hyatt) or anywhere in Las Vegas. The tips given in the article about ordering New World wines and lesser-known varietals might help you save money in any given restaurant, but they won’t prevent you from being ripped off if that’s what the restaurant is doing. Indeed, the cheaper wines are likely have even bigger markups than the more expensive ones:
An inexpensive bottle might be priced three to four times its wholesale cost, while a pricey wine may be marked up only 1.5 times…
At Las Vegas’s Caesars Palace, home to Restaurant Guy Savoy and Mesa Grill, wines that cost less than $100 wholesale are marked up more than those that cost over $100 to "get them to a certain level" in line with the rest of the restaurant’s pricing, says Stuart Roy, who buys and prices wine for the casino’s restaurants.
In general, I think there are two types of wine lists: the large and intimidating ones, on the one hand, and the intelligently-curated and impressive ones, on the other. The former are much more likely to have ridiculous mark-ups, and if you find yourself paging through eighteen pages of fine Bordeaux in a leather-bound volume which weighs more than the average bible, that’s probably a sign that if you’re paying for the meal out of your own pocket, you might want to concentrate more on the food than the wine.
Oh, and Per Se’s excuse that its $595 Dom includes service? Assuming that the service charge is 20%, that makes the implied cost of the wine $495 — which is still four times the retail price at Hi Time, my favorite wine shop in California.
I don’t know what the rest of Per Se’s wine list looks like; it’s possible that they mark up the Dom for the show-offs, while putting less of a premium on more obscure labels. But somehow I doubt it. Maybe I should join the Bellagio’s team of undercover sommeliers (for real!) to find out.
(HT: Durham’s Bull)