Monday, August 04, 2008

Gouging at the Pumps

Dining out has become an enjoyable pastime in our weekly things-to-do. Not that we dine out a lot nor splurge at the poshest eateries. We have our favourite places and we’re always willing to try a new neon at least giving the menu a perusal if not reserving for a visit. I’ve started using a website,, to locate restaurants in our area. Each restaurant listed provides past patrons an opportunity to submit their review… But back to the subject … ‘Gouging at the Pumps’ or more directly ‘Restaurant Mark-up on Wines’. Before looking at a wine list I open the regular menu asking about the daily specials along the way. I’ve got my menu gazing down to a regular protocol. First, bouncing each item off my appetite asking it for an opinion. I pause long enough for the chef’s description to soak through to all of my senses. I do this once for the appetizers and then for the entrées. I skip the dessert section all together so my intake balances my physical activity – I’m a sloth during the week.

Once the appetizer and main course are decided, on to the wine list. My approach here is different. First, I peruse the complete list for how imaginative the wine selections are. Is it full of commercial labels? Is there a sampling of country, varietal, and winery? You can often tell how serious a restaurant is about food by learning how they approach pairing of their wines. As an aside… I recall my BH, I and friends having dinner in a small Hamilton bistro… don’t recall the name and don’t want to. Asking for the short wine list we ordered a bottle of Californian Chateauneuf de Pape-like. A short wait while the waiter brought the bottle and a decanter to the table. The bottle was presented, ceremoniously opened, white linen wiped the rim, then upturned into the decanter with the waiter remarking ‘aeration always improves a good wine’s flavour’ and server and bottle left the table. The lighting at the table made it difficult to see until I held the decanter up to the candle. The murkiness, nose and flavour indicated this ‘Chateauneuf de Pape-like’ was a $48 home brew!

Back to ‘Gouging… ’ A restaurant’s mark-up for wines from LCBO shelves is easily determined although even this is fallible. Sometimes a tiered wine is hard to spot – e.g. a Carmen Reserve Merlot ($16.95 LCBO) comes to the table as Carmen Merlot ($10.95 LCBO). But you can always check the label and refuse the bottle. Twice the price is rare but sometimes it’s an indication the restaurant is motivated by food and service rather than profiteering. It seems the ratio is becoming three times or more these days. When a wine is from a distributor, knowing the value then depends on knowing much more… and please don’t suggest depending on the ‘sommelier’ unless he’s your brother’s uncle.

Another aside to illustrate the last point: A special night out for me and my BH sent us to a restaurant off lower Brant in Burlington, to a restaurant no longer in business. The ‘sommelier’ asked if we would like a bottle of the red featured that evening. Asking the price I was surprised - $84. I declined and chose from the wine list. Later two young men intent on having a good evening with their spouses were asked the same question: “Would you like to try our featured red this evening?” They agreed without asking the price. During the course of the evening a second bottle arrived at the table. Either the couples would be shocked at the final bill for the evening – or more likely I’m just out of their league.

You’d think a restaurant, especially in Niagara’s wine region, would give some consideration for local wines by offering them at lower mark-ups. I found this to be a fallacy when recently dining in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Niagara wines were priced with the same tourist level mark-ups. And since local wines are often priced by carafe or glass the mark-up can be higher. So much for promoting the local wine industry.

I do mind paying three times mark-up for a taste of a wine I would not normally consume. On the other hand I seriously get unhinged paying $50 extra for a $25 wine I would enjoy. Talk about ‘rock and hard place’! Now I wouldn’t mind and consider it completely reasonable to pay a ‘wine service charge’ recognizing the expense of a controlled wine cellar, glassware, spoilage and server training. If I ordered a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon at $28 with $30 added for service I would be well satisfied – but it’s not gonna happen, is it?

My last aside: OK, so accepting the status quo and gritting my teeth I’ll go with three times mark-up when a bottle is rendered down to the ‘per glass’ level, eg. $36 for a $12 Yellow Tail Shiraz or $24 for an $8 Citra Pinot Grigio. At this rate a 5 oz. glass would be $7.20 for the red and $4.80 for the white before tip, taxes and ignoring any discounted ‘licensee pricing’ of the wines. However, when some 750ml (25 oz.) bottles are labelled ‘7 - 9 servings’, the return is $50+ and $35+ for the same wines - an approximate mark-up of 4 times for what often can be ‘stale’ wine. To me, that’s ‘Gouging at the Pumps!’

Well, I got that off my chest!

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