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Thursday Thorns: The Report Card
The Wall Street Journal Hates Wine By The Glass

By Charles Olken

Lettie Teague, one of two winewriters for the Wall Street Journal, should know better. She “simply hates wine by the glass”. Never mind that not all wine by the glass programs are created alike. Never mind that she readily admits that she will drink sparkling wine by the glass. Never mind that her proofs are dismembered by the reality at almost any restaurant with a respectful (for its customers) wine program. Never mind all these things and more, Lettie Teague hates wine by the glass and has thrown the whole concept under the bus with her latest article in the Wall Street Journal.

I rate her article at C-.

It could have been worse, but somehow, without bothering to tell us how to judge a good wine by the glass program, she does at least point to a few restaurants that get it right. Otherwise, I could have given her a D. She, in fact, does know better, but she slanted her article with prejudice from the outset and failed the most basic test that is required of wine writing. She did not offer a solution to the problem she claims to exist and that anyone who has every encountered a wine by the glass that has stood around too long waiting to be consumed knows to be true. Wine by the glass programs can be horrid when wrong. But, they are not all wrong, and the good ones do not suffer the problems that Teague heaps upon them by the bucketful.

Here is the proof. Teague claims that her first objection is cost. This is an observation that is more a factor of the entire wine list than of the wine by the glass program. Restaurants buy wine for about 66% of the cost of the bottle at retail. Cheap guys like me want wine in restaurants to sell for twice wholesale about 150% of retail. I rarely get my wish. But, it is not unreasonable to expect a good restaurant to sell wine for twice retail. That gives them a markup about equal to what they get on the cost of food. Yes, it can be argued that wine service is far less costly to the restaurant that food preparation and the margins are higher, and I won’t disagree with that premise. But I gladly accept wine sold at twice retail.

Not every restaurant does that, and I regularly refuse to buy expensive wine in restaurants when I spot markups of three to four times retail. Teague is correct that such markups do exist. There is a simple answer. Don’t pay them. I won’t. Instead of ordering a bottle, I order a glass. Sure the restaurant gets a pretty profit, but two things happen. They sell less wine, which means less profit overall, and I don’t go back unless someone else is paying the bill next time. Or, I simply bring my own wine, pay the corkage fee and either order something cheap by the bottle or just a glass to supplement whatever I have brought. Either way, the restaurant loses out.

I did a little research on this point before writing. Admittedly, it is not all inclusive, but I did choose four of my favorite restaurants. Sure, they are favorites because I have no axe to grind with their wine programs, but I go there for the food first. They are: Pappo, my local good restaurant here in Alameda where I live: the Bay Wolf on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland where I have had more good and important meals than any other restaurant in existence; Chez Panisse, Berkeley’s still-shining jewel; and, Boulevard, the single most reliable and very good, special, not over the top restaurant in San Francisco.

At each of them, wines by the glass are sold at approximately 25% of the cost of the full bottle on the list, and the lists at each of them charge about twice (200%) full retail or a little more. None of those restaurants has exorbitant wine prices. To read Teague, you would guess that overpricing was the rule. I chose to look at sparkling wine prices. Here is an example repeated a couple of times. A bottle of Roederer Estate Brut, at $23 full retail, costs $44 to $48 on those wine lists. On the wine by the glass program, a full pour of about five to six ounces costs $11.50 to $12.50. I care about such things because Mrs. Olken and I will more times than not order a glass of bubbly when we sit down to look at the menu.

Teague says that wines held for four or five days will begin to lose their attractiveness. With that, I have no argument. And if you are ordering wine by the glass at places that cannot move a full bottle of wine by the glass in that period of time, then the first rule is “don’t order wine by the glass there”, and the second rule might be “don’t eat there”. But, Teague is not even fully right on this point. “Wines opened for more than a few days”, she argues “will have their acidities dissipate”. Not so. Acidity does not dissipate. Fruit might. Oxidation might set in, but acidity does not dissipate. It is not unusual for sparkling wine sit open but stoppered in the Chez Olken refrigerator for several days. In time the bubbles begin to fade, but not the acidity.

Bottom line: Do not listen to the argument that you should not buy wine by the glass. It is a broad-brush philosophy that rings false at virtually every restaurant with a good wine program. And do not overspend for wines when the markups go charging through the roof. The truly odd thing about this rule is that the alternative is usually to buy wine by the glass or to buy a half bottle. The day when we could go to a fine restaurant and buy two full bottles for two people is long gone for most of us. Moderation has taken over, and wine by the glass programs also feed that need. Lettie Teague must surely know and the rest of us do surely know that not all wine lists are created equal. We choose to patronize the good ones. We can do the same for wine by the glass programs. If you live in San Francisco, you can go to any of the four restaurants mentioned and be confident that the wine by the glass program treats you with respect. And I expect that there are restaurants all over the country that do the same. By the end of her long article, Teague even admits to finding some in New York City.


acidity dissipates
by ThomasPellechia
Posted on:9/23/2010 5:59:36 AM
You see, Charlie. It's comments like "acidity dissipates" that cause me to want reviewers to go get some basic training before they spout off.
Where Does All The Acid Go?
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/23/2010 7:43:35 AM
With apologies to Pete Seeger, I have to say that I was laughing out loud at that comment. I understand that a restaurant with few patrons, not preserving system for the wines by the glass and too many choices for the amount of trade they do can have a bunch of tired wines, especially if they try to preserve nearly empty bottles from one day to the next (a good restaurant would open fresh ones the next day). And I understand that a few restaurants will boost the prices of their wines by the glass. Those are legitimate reasons to avoid wines by the glass at such restaurants. But the notion that acidity dissipates is one of the funnier ones we will hear this week. If anything the acidity grows in prominence as fruit fades and oxidation begins, especially if sharp volatile acids begin to form.
dissipate, shmissipate
by ThomasPellechia
Posted on:9/23/2010 8:08:20 AM
My impression is that a wine writer using a word like "dissipate" likely hasn't much grounding in sensory evaluation. What is probably meant by the use of the word is that the wine tastes "flat" after it has been open for a long time. Of course, what you say is true and that simply makes the acid dissipation comment a joke; either that, or a mistaken definition of the word!
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:9/24/2010 12:53:15 AM
I think I've got it, Tom. The acid does not dissipate. It disshmissipates, which according to my dictionary of vinous vocabulary, means that elves under the soil come out during the full moon and suck up the acidity. What Lettie Teague did not realize is that these same elves also come out just before the new moon and put the acid back. It is process known to wineries as asshmidulation.
Lettie Teague rant
by Joel Butler MW
Posted on:10/2/2010 2:27:51 PM
So Charlie,What Ms Teague got wrong (and Right) was the pricing structure for BTG wine being higher than for wine bottles. IN many less expensive, more "commercial" restaurants,and even some finer establishments, the bottle wholesale price becomes the glass price. This is most especially true of commercial wines such as white zin, less expensive cabs and chards.IT is a way to gouge, and if done consistently by all restaurants, it would lead to a lot more 10-15 dollar/glass and higher wines.Most sensible restaurants, however, derive (as you noted)their BTG price by multiplying their bottle cost by the margin they want (unfortunately, most do 3-4 times cost!) and then dividing by 4or 5. EG; a $10 bottle cost = $40 bottle on list, and $8 glass (5 glass rate. The one exception to this is with sparkling wine. When I was at PRima years ago, due to the slower pour potential of fizz, we priced BTG fizz about 3.5 pours/bottle, due to the waste involved if the bottle wasn't finished more or less overnight! Fizz is generally the least good deal by the glass for that reason (and why Ihave no guilt about sending back a glass of fizz that is tired and demanding a fresh pour)I deplore this system as well, but it's too bad more restaurants don't have a sliding scale of pricing, as some of the best do. For them, which she didn't seem to note (maybe I missed it), the more expensive a wine is, the lower the markup, and this is where the best "deal" is by the glass, if the restaurant pours such wine.For me, the BIGGEST problem with restaurant wine service is not the price (as you say, pay corkage bring your own where allowed!); it's that 99% of restaurants have lousy temperature storage for their wines, especially red.Virtually all restaurants I go to require my ordering the red in advance, having them chill it down in ice bucket, or "quel horreur", putting an ice cube in the glass. There is nothing worse than too warm red wine...except too warm white wine.And I would suggest, that if restaurant doesn't have some preservative system in place (vacu-vin, gas etc)then a wine that's been opened more than 2 days is should be relegated tot he kitchen!JB
She Picked On the Wrong Target
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/2/2010 3:07:23 PM

Hi Joel--

The whole article was basically a cheap shot at wine by the glass programs everywhere. She told millions of people who read the Wall Street Journal to avoid wines by the glass. If they followed that dictum, many would not drink any wine at all because the alterntives are Martinis or full bottles, and a full bottle is often the wrong choice for all kinds of reasons.

Rather than lay out the parameters of a good wine by the glass program, she simply said don't go there. I think I proved, through the four restaurants I chose, which happen to be four restaurants I frequent and were not picked at random, but for which I had not done the math, that good restaurants can have good wine by the glass programs. You have suggested some of those parameters. Of course, I am not surprised. You have been in the biz, including the restaurant and retail trade biz and understand it. Thanks for adding to the discussion.


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