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Thursday Thorns
A Tale of Two Countries

By Charles Olken

Consider the conflicting headlines in today’s wine news:

“Champagne Sales Up. Wine Recession Over”.


“Recessions Over So Who Forgot To Tell The Diners?”

Maybe it’s both. But probably not. Champagne is the ultimate restaurant wine. Its presence on wine lists far exceeds its place in the overall consumption picture. Even with Chez Olken doing its part for all bubblies, including French, Champagne is a wine driven by restaurant consumption.

What is more likely to be the problem with wine in restaurants is high prices for table wines. We are all amenable to a splurge now and then, especially in fancy meals in fancy restaurants for fancy occasions. But, if we splurge on Champagne, and it has become a big time splurge with prices for almost anything of exciting quality having roared past the three-digit barrier without so much as stopping to breathe, many of us simply no longer are willing to pay through the nose for a second bottle. I don’t know about you, but I tend to be allergic to three-digit prices most of the time, and especially in restaurants where the typical $60 bottle will sell on the wine list for anywhere from $125 to $175. That is why I almost always bring the red wine to the restaurant. Not only do I have better wine than most restaurants, at least for comparable price levels, but by paying corkage for the red, I can splurge for that bottle of fancy bubbly or that Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris. It is not that those wines are bargain-priced. Outrageous restaurant markups apply there too. But at least I am only going to get gouged once.

I used to have a rule. The wine cost could not exceed the food cost for a restaurant visit. But, of course, that was back in the days when wine was far more affordable. It is an interesting fact of life that food, once a major drain on people’s budgets, is now one of the few affordable indulgences.

Maybe nobody forgot to tell the diners. Maybe somebody forgot to tell the restaurants that wine costs have risen faster than food costs, faster than inflation, faster than the cost of housing or cars, and while the recession is over, and wine sales generally are up and are encouraging a rapid rise in grape prices fueled by winery demand, the diners have seemed to remember the teachings of the recession. There are times and places to splurge, but overpriced wine in restaurants may not be one of them.


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