Hope Springs Eternal

The best way for restaurants to make money from their wine lists is to charge less. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, and to some restauranteurs it’s a mix of lunacy and stupidity, but it makes complete sense. If wine is more affordable, people will be more inclined to drink it. If, when new guests are seated, they are able to look around and see many of the other tables boasting glasses and bottles of wine, they might be inclined to follow suit. And, if they are able to open the wine list and spy all sorts of great choices at great prices, they’ll be convinced that ordering some wine is the just the thing to do.  Maybe a fair and accessible wine list has a Field of Dreams element to it: if you build it, they will come.

Unfortunately, as we have discussed before, for far too many restaurants that is not the case. Using the wine list as barely disguised burglary tools is a firmly entrenched custom in this country. But, I am happy to report, there is hope. There are restaurants in this fair land who understand the aforementioned premise, who have reaped the rewards of its profound but simple truth: charge less, sell more, make more money, develop loyal customers. Repeat.

On a recent trip to Massachusetts, at three restaurants in three days, I had the pleasure of ordering from wine lists specifically designed for increased sales and repeat business. At Hillstone (formerly Houston’s) in Boston, steps away from Faneuil Hall, the vast majority of wines enjoyed markups between 30-50%, far lower than what most restaurants offer. We started with a glass of Billecart-Salmon Champagne at $14. This did not seem like much of a bargain until we saw the glass, which was shaped like a pilsener and held almost twice the amount of a typical Champagne flute. We then selected a bottle of Vocoret Chablis that normally retails around $25 and was listed at $38. This exceeded the markup range mentioned above, but barely, and still far lower than the typical 100-250% increases at most establishments. In fact, the Hillstone list, in many spots, holds to the practice of increasingly smaller markups for increasingly expensive wine. Again, charge less and sell more.

The following night we treated our daughter to a much-needed break from the college dining hall with a meal at 111 Chop House, one of the more visible signs of Worcester’s ongoing dining renaissance.  This is the same restaurant where, two months ago, I was able to order a 2002 Ridge Monte Bello for just a whisper above retail. On this visit, we asked for the 2007 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon but were told that the wine list had not been updated that week and that particular wine was no longer available.  I asked for the wine list again and it arrived in the hands of the restaurant’s manager, who took his time to discuss other options. We finally settled on the 2007 Shafer “One Point Five” Cabernet for $99, a markup of around 50%. When I complimented the manager on his prices, he explained that the restaurant was getting steady, repeat business from as far away as Boston (40 miles) because of its great combination of excellent steak and a solid, fairly priced wine list.

On the final night of our visit we dined en masse with the families of my daughter’s roommate and friends at what might be Worcester’s most popular Italian restaurant, Dino’s. I’ve eaten there many times and knew the food would be tasty, traditional, and twice as much as we needed. The wine list was just as satisfying, and geared towards just about any palate or wallet, with selections that ranged from $14 Riunite to $175 Opus One. Bottles you might see in the store for $60 can be had at Dino’s at a modest 50% markup. Four of the parents split a delicious bottle of Martine Primativo, which only set us back $24. Not per person, but in total.

C’mon, restaurants! This isn’t rocket science. Lots of little dollars add up to big dollars. You know, the big dollars you’re not making because nobody wants to buy grossly overpriced bottles of wine. Any ideas on how we can get more restaurants to follow the leads of places like Hillstone and 111 Chop House? I’m all ears.

6 thoughts on “Hope Springs Eternal

  1. Brendan

    Speaking of Worcester, in the summer of `95 I stayed a few days with you in Vernon, and went out to lunch on the last day, in Worcester, before catching Amtrak, some place with a great beer list. Any idea what place that was?

    1. Tom Riley

      I have to guess that it’s the old standby, the Boynton. I’m not sure I knew too many other places for a decent lunch and a beer. We still eat there. Not much of a wine list, though. Lunches these days tend to be iced tea or diet coke.

  2. Brendan

    Whew, I’m glad you were finally able to settle on that $99 bottle. You had me sweating bullets there for a minute, sure you were going to be taken by some wiseguy Worcester piker posing as a sommelier. It’s a stone cold relief to know that there’s still a bargain or two to be had out there in this hard land. : ^ )

    1. Tom Riley

      I was tempted to go for the Ridge Monte Bello again at $125, which might be the best restaurant price in America right now. No piker seduction here; gotta know them prices before walking into the grapedealers den. When visiting with the kids, my rule is to kill the fatted calf. Which is why I’m drinking from a bottle of $11 tempranillo right now, and had cheese and salami for dinner. It’s all about balance! 😉 Besides, the lower you go on the wine list, invariably, the bigger the mark-up. The middle is the place to be. Even in Worcester.

      Glad your blood pressure back to normal!

  3. Noreen

    Can’t wait to forward this to my friend, Pam, for when her daughter returns from the year at Oxford! Her Jill (my Sarah’s best friend) is a junior at Holy Cross.

    1. Tom Riley

      You’ll have to give me her last name so Katie can say hi if the chance presents itself. If Pam has any other Worcester spots she likes, pass them along. We also like the Boynton for lunch or a casual dinner; Sole Proprietor is good if not too busy (they get slammed sometimes but the quality is high; same owners as the aforementioned chop house).

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