Uncorked

Want to know why restaurants charge so much for a bottle of wine? Because they can get away with it, that's why.

Like his friend and frequent customer Chip Cassidy (the Captain's Tavern is one of the precious few restaurants to which Cassidy doesn't bring his own bottle), Bowers dismisses the notion that top-end restaurants can't lower their markups. Though he doesn't disagree that pyramids of food carry high labor costs, there is, he argues, a limit beyond which it is unconscionable to go. And most local restaurateurs have exceeded that limit with gusto. "It's the one reason I don't eat out," Bowers remarks. "These high-profile-chef places A and I'm not going to mention any names A they say they don't sell enough wine that they can 'give it away' [at a lower price]. I think they're idiots."

So, for a time, was Bowers. "About twelve years ago, a man named Keith McComas (he owned Tropicaire Drive-in) told me, 'Captain, you've got a great restaurant but you've got a shitty wine list. Must be one of the wine guys [distributors] putting it together for you. Must be pricing it for you, too.'

"I said, 'If you know so damn much about wine, why don't you help me buy it?' Over the years we must have tasted 2000 to 3000 wines together."

That background still shows in Bowers, who refers to himself as a "wine merchandiser" and is as happy to sell a bottle of low-end white zinfandel as a bottle of high-end white burgundy. "A lot of people won't carry white zinfandel," he explains. "I sell four cases a week. These are entry-level people, people who've been drinking beer, hard liquor, but not wine. Ten bucks a bottle, they figure, how can we go wrong? Then, when they see that maybe it's a little too sweet for their taste, we move them to a sauvignon blanc, then a chardonnay. Before you know it, they're trying red wines A pinot noir with salmon, what an excellent pairing! Then they move on, probably to the cabernets, the Bordeaux.

"And then you got 'em hooked," concludes the restaurant owner, oblivious to the perfect metaphor but well aware of the path to profits.

Perhaps Bowers can afford to cultivate a wine-loving throng at his high-volume restaurant. That's not the case at the Armadillo Cafe, a long-lived and -loved Davie eatery known for its Southwestern cuisine. Though the ambiance is upscale, the cuisine likewise, the Armadillo is committed to low markups. After trumpeting the fact that the Armadillo is a Wine Spectator magazine Award of Excellence honoree (so are Mark's Place, Chef Allen's, and the Grand Cafe, all of which were included in the New Times survey), one of the first things manager Jim Carroll will tell you about his wine list is that the entries are marked up at double the restaurant's wholesale cost, at most. "Two reasons," Carroll says. Consumers are getting pretty sharp. They see a bottle of Kendall-Jackson in the store for less than $10, and they see it on your wine list for $25, $27. They know something is wrong. Also, we just want to give people a better value."

Of his competitors, Carroll shrugs, "That's the way they're focused A it's like a corporate mentality: You tell your bosses, 'I just cleared $10,000 this month selling wine at three times cost.' You go back the next month and say, 'I sold the wine at two-and-a-half times cost and made $12,000.' And they tell you that you could sell at three times cost and make $15,000 if you worked harder.

"I say you can't bank percentage, you can only bank dollars. But some people only see the percentage."

Around the nation, there are some signs that restaurateurs are pricing their wines with greater sensitivity. While 300 percent of wholesale was once said to be the restaurant-industry standard, that blanket pricing policy has largely (even in Miami) given way to a so-called sliding scale, on which lower-cost wines are still marked up three times or more, but the profit margin on higher-ticket items is reduced to a smaller percentage, down to twice the wholesale cost, or less. Largely, this seems to be a product of a more educated clientele, customers like the ones Jim Carroll speaks of, who know good and well what the retail price of a bottle is when they see it on a wine list, and who are less willing to forgive outlandish markups, especially on high-ticket bottles, which can translate to really big bucks.

Another factor is the competitive nature of the restaurant business itself, and the necessity of coming up with imaginative ways of ensuring a full house even in formidable economic times.

Three years ago the New York restaurant Cite introduced an intriguing innovation. The highly regarded French steak house, located in Manhattan's theater district, was doing a brisk lunch and pre-theater business, but after 8:00 p.m. the 385-seat behemoth was failing to fill. Brainstorming along with his staff, proprietor Alan Stillman, whose New York Restaurant Group owns four other New York restaurants as well as one in Chicago, devised a plan. They were already conducting a twice yearly Wine Week, a weeklong veritable bacchanalia during which each of their eateries poured up to fourteen different wines for patrons to sample along with their lunches -- for no extra cost. Why not take the bottles that were left over after Wine Week and offer them during the slow times at Cite? "It was a huge success," says the restaurant group's wine director Daniel Thames. "So huge a success that we decided to do it on a continual basis."

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