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Chip Cassidy, wine director of Crown Wine Merchants and possibly the foremost wine retailer in the Southeast, tilts back in his favorite chair at his favorite table in his favorite restaurant. He raises his glass of 1990 Domaine Trimbach Riesling Cuvee Frederic Emile and swirls it gently, then lets his nose hover over the pale-honey liquid, allowing that most sensitive and assiduously trained organ to sniff out the wine's multifarious components: flowers, herbs, citrus, apple. "I love Alsatian wines," Cassidy proclaims finally. "They go so well with so many different kinds of food. And yet you never see enough of them on wine lists."
Sure enough, Cassidy didn't order this Alsace Riesling off the wine list. He brought it with him. Almost without fail, he brings his own wine when he eats out, preferring to pay a "corkage fee" rather than acquiesce to the marked-up rates -- commonly more than three times a wine's wholesale cost -- most restaurants routinely charge.
A painstaking (though by no means exhaustive) computer-assisted examination of the wine lists at nearly two dozen local restaurants reveals that patrons are asked to pay wildly varying amounts for the privilege of accompanying their meals with wine. For example, the same bottle of chardonnay from Kendall-Jackson -- the best-selling label at restaurants across the nation, according to a recent survey by Wine & Spirits magazine -- might cost anywhere from $20 to $33, depending where you happen to make your reservation. The wine retails for about ten dollars. A bottle of Santa Margherita pinot grigio, an increasingly popular Italian white, costs $14 to $17 at the grocery or liquor store but appears on local lists for $29 to $40. Champagne pricing is equally unpredictable, and the stakes can be far higher: A bottle of vintage Dom Perignon that retails for less than $90 can cost as little as $110 at a restaurant A or as much as $190; a bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal ($120 retail) ranges from $150 to $265 if someone else pops the cork for you.
When asked to justify seemingly extravagant markups, restaurateurs don't get defensive, they get righteous, toeing an unwavering party line. "We're pretty much in line with other restaurants of our caliber, in Miami and around the nation," says Tom Hillan, general manager of Mark's Place in North Miami. Hillan, who is in charge of wines at all three of owner Mark Militello's restaurants, argues that luxe restaurants such as Militello's use wine pricing to offset high overhead and labor-intensive menu items, which eat away at profit margins. The restaurant is careful, he adds, to offer interesting wines for which their clientele won't mind paying a premium. "We try to put things on that are eclectic -- smaller producers, boutique-type wines. Not grocery-store wines."
Rick Garced, manager and wine director at the Grand Bay Hotel's Grand Cafe, agrees. "To maintain a high-end restaurant, there's a lot of hidden costs," asserts Garced, who worked as a maitre d' at the renowned Manhattan food-and-wine spot Windows on the World, then helped to reopen the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge last summer before moving on to the Grand in January. "We're very price-conscious, but you have to adjust it when you're running a place at this level. We offer a lot of hard-to-get wines, unique wines. Our prices are competitive with our competition."
Chip Cassidy, who has been in the retail wine business for 26 years, takes pains not to single out any restaurant owners, but he does have one well-chosen word for the theory that wine markups must be mighty: "Baloney. Those restaurant owners are not consumers. They don't buy wine. They're only interested in what their accountants told them about food costs. And accountants have told them they can get away with it."
Wine writer Frank Prial agrees. "They're trying to make up a whole lot on the backs of wine drinkers," says Prial, whose column appears in the New York Times every Wednesday. "It's almost discrimination A it's outrageous. They usually whine to me about rent. 'We have to make it up somehow,' they say. I say, So what? That's just another excuse. It's an easy way out for them, but it's still a rip-off."
Among the restaurants New Times surveyed, there were a few exceptions to the high-price rule. For every ten restaurants that marked up their wines 300 percent or more, there was one that seemed to be adhering to much less excessive guidelines.
Most eye-catching, perhaps, was the Captain's Tavern, which would be a meat-and-potatoes establishment if it served meat and potatoes. But Bill Bowers's South Dixie Highway mainstay, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, specializes in seafood. And an amazing array of wine, a huge list that is marked up to twice the wholesale cost at most and one that seems out of character in comparison to its surroundings. ("I don't build fancy pyramids out of food," Bowers confirms. "I have good food, big portions.")
Bowers believes something is lost when restaurant owners view wine solely as a commodity to ensure a robust bottom line. Wine, he feels, should be part of a meal, not a prohibitively priced adjunct. "A bottle of wine shouldn't be the center of the conversation at a restaurant," he contends. "It should be there for enjoyment. You should be able to sit down and drink a bottle of wine and just enjoy it. I want people to drink wine at my restaurant every time they come."