During the mid-1990s, I was the anonymous restaurant critic for the Maine Sunday Telegram, Maine’s largest newspaper. I filed a review each week during four-and-a-half years.
The newspaper liked it that my career as a salesman in the legal market caused me to travel everywhere in Maine (everywhere there was a lawyer), so I was able to test all types of restaurants, of whatever promise, throughout Maine, from the bottom of the state’s south to the top of its north, ocean to mountains.
I reviewed about 360 restaurants. I ate about 750 professional meals in order to do it, often accompanied by my wife Channa and some or all of our children, or else by friends who would do what I told them to do.
I had three rules.
It’s fun to be paid to eat.
It’s fun to write what was the paper’s most frequently read column each Sunday…of course, after the obits!
Not only did I gain weight during my four-and-a-half years, also I gained a weighty knowledge about wine.
My food/drink budget was to be squared quarterly, otherwise it floated.
For example, when I planned to review a restaurant with an excellent wine list, I’d review places that were more modest for a few weeks first. Then, when my wife and I arrived at the wine-list restaurant, I would have a big balance of float money available.
In these posts, I might discuss wines themselves another time, but for readers who order wine at restaurants, here’s an insider’s tip about wine prices.
The bar is a profit center. Restaurateurs develop an instinct for the price-points at which to sell bottles of various vintages and qualities. The tip I will provide is based on a principle that is active today although the mark-up percentages may differ between today and when I was reviewing.
A restaurant’s wine list has prices that are in the low range for restaurants, in the middle range, and in the high range.
Here’s the tip--
If wine is important to you for its ability to enhance your meal—not only to enhance your experience of the food itself but also of the atmosphere—don’t automatically reject the high-priced bottles.
The retail prices of the low-to-medium-priced bottles are at least double, and sometimes triple, what the restaurant paid for those bottles. As the quality of the wine improves its wholesale price gets higher.
So, let’s pretend that you and your wife go out to dinner on her birthday. (Don’t worry: this works just the same way if you and your husband go out to dinner on his birthday.)
You buy a $30 bottle of wine at the restaurant--it’s a birthday! Depending on how you pour, you’ll get about six glasses out of your bottle. So each glass costs you $5.
The restaurant doubled its cost for that bottle when it sold it to you. It makes $15.
Note, however, that the value of the wine you are drinking, based on the wholesale price, which is established by the vintner, is $2.50/glass, not $5.00/glass.
But suppose, instead, you see a bottle on the wine list you know by reputation is far superior in quality than that $30 bottle. It’s a birthday, after all, and it’s only once a year.
That superior wine is priced at $59.
This is not the low-to-medium price range any longer; you’re at, or nearing, the high end of the list.
Now…I admit I’m like you.
The first thing you might think (and I would, too) is that it is ridiculous even to contemplate spending $59 for a bottle of wine, birthday or no. How much better can this $59 wine be than the $30 wine? And it costs a lot more.
But don’t think that way.
Go ahead and think that way, but then at least think about thinking another way!
What you’re not taking into account is that, at the high end, the markup percentage the restaurant places on the bottle is almost certainly less than 100% to 200%. Sometimes a lot less.
Here’s what the restaurant is thinking.
‘I can sell $15 bottles of wine for $30 all day long. But how shall I price those bottles I bought for $40? I don’t think I can sell them for $80. Instead, I’ll price them at $60…well, no, $59.’
If you buy the $59 bottle, what happens?
You’ll still pour the same six glasses, but the cost of each is $9.83. While your cost is nearly 100% higher than your cost for the $30 wine (which was $5/glass), the value of the wine you are drinking is considerably higher.
Based on the wholesale prices, which more closely relate to the true values of the two wines, the value of a glass of the $30 wine is $2.50 per glass, and the value of the $59 wine is $6.66 per glass.
Your per-glass cost has increased 97%. Your per-glass value has increased 167%.
So you have made a good financial decision.
Perhaps your spouse’s eyes are now sparkling at you.
The restaurant has made $29.00 instead of $15.00.
Even Jesus, who was once a wine supplier, back in His day, and who approves of eye-sparkle between spouses.
Please tell me if you enjoyed this post.
It would be fun to do others like this one now and then, under LIFE.
So you know, I had a fine time as Maine’s principal restaurant critic for almost five years.
When Channa and I were younger, I was one of the two chefs at a mid-coast Maine restaurant, doing a parallel country French and Chinese menu (two menus; two sides of the kitchen—not a fusion-y thing).
Great fun, until it ended.
One February, without any notice, the owner got bored and closed it.
February in Maine is NOT a good time to lose a job, especially when you have one small daughter and a very pregnant wife.
The only good news was this--
The owner let the other chef and me clear out whatever was in the walk-in refrigerator and the freezers and take everything home for our own personal use.
Yeah, we were broke.
But Channa and I—and lots of our friends--ate like kings!