Sometimes Too Much IS Too Much

I love everything about Bocanova, the terrific Pan-Latin eatery on the waterfront in Oakland’s Jack London Square.  The managers are friendly, the service is attentive, the
food is delicious and interesting, and the wine list, which changes constantly, is filled with reliable and offbeat labels, both Old and New World. And on those rare nights when the chilly breeze off the Bay eases up and invites you to sit outdoors, their patio is a great place to put the finishing touches on a busy day. Bocanova is one of the best things to happen to downtown Oakland in many a day.

Okay, stop. I have a confession. I don’t love everything about Bocanova. I don’t like the prices on their wine list, which are unjustifiably high. I don’t like those prices at all. I think marking up a wine more than 250% above retail is akin to theft, and takes advantage of the eager and the ignorant.  For example, one of the better reds on their wine list, 2008 Viñedos de Ithaca “Akyles” (Priorat) is listed at $65. This same bottle retails in most outlets around $25. That’s more than two-and-a-half times. In the wine world where I live, along with millions of other restaurant goers, conventional wisdom says, “Charge lower prices, sell
more wine, make more money.”

Well, to Bocanova’s credit, they try to make up for this with their Wine Wednesday program, when every bottle on the list sells at 50% off the list price. So, for the Akyles last week, my wife and I paid $32.50. And while this is still 30% above retail, it’s not an increase of 250%.  We started the evening with a bottle of 2007 Juve y Camps cava reserve de la familia brut nature. This has a Bocanova list price of $40, but retails at $14. Yikes! Again, about 250-270% markup. We got it at half-price and so paid $20. Again, in the 30% range above retail. (We cork unfinished bottles and take them home, in case you’re counting.)

I’m wondering what’s wrong with making 30% over retail, or approximately 60% over their own wholesale cost. What’s justified in that sort of profiteering? I find this all a bit upsetting, as my wife and I really like going to Bocanova. We love chatting with the manager and the director of the wine program, as well as the many members of the wait staff we’ve become acquainted with.

The more I think about this, the more I realize that I’m faced with only a few options. One, bring a bottle of my own wine and pay the nominal corkage EVERY time we decide to eat there. Two, only go there on Wednesdays, which is a bit limiting. The third course of action is one I’d rather not consider: stop eating at Bocanova.

I think in the next few weeks I’ll share all this information with as many friends as possible and see what they think. Gouging your customers like Bocanova is doing with its regular list is antithetical to the idea of getting more people to drink more wine. It’s clear that they already understand that a restaurant makes more money by selling more wine. And you sell more wine when you offer wine at fair and attractive prices. If they didn’t know this, they wouldn’t be hosting Wine Wednesday. All they need to do is starting adding Wine Thursdays and Fridays and Saturdays to their otherwise excellent program. (

7 thoughts on “Sometimes Too Much IS Too Much

  1. BPR

    There is that line of truth in the song “I Need A Miracle” which goes…”Too much of everything is just enough!” I guess that’s enough.

  2. Anonymous

    I see in this sane column a possible, and right, future intersection with The Minimalist, meaning, you and Mark Bittman could have a lot to say to each other on the topic of simplicity in wine choices and pricing, although he studiously avoids restaurant talk. Or maybe you and Eric Asmiov.

  3. Kenneth Raphael

    I agree with your point, Tom but your math is off. 250% of $25 is $87.50. Assuming they buy at 30% below retail, their markup is actually 271% of wholesale. I love the restaurant but the next visit will be on Wednesday.

    1. Tom Riley

      I did use the number 270% and then said “more than 250%” above there. Must be my inner Mr. Nice Guy trying to overcome my vitriol. The comment below about places going 300-400 percent (see my blog on my trip to Boston back in January) is so telling. I just don’t get it.

  4. Tom Riley

    The blantant disrespect for the customer and the not so latent desire to take advantage is something I just find despicable. Is being honest so difficult, so undesirable? Makes no sense to me.

  5. C. Scott Puckett

    Bocanova are not unique in their pricing. I could mention a few houses where they do 300% mark up w/ no apologies… Although, a couple have gone far enough to ask me not to sell the same wine to a retailer some 85, or so feet away from said restaurant. Seriously. I’ve also known a retailer that asked me not to sell certain wines to another retailer. Crazy, and weak.

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