Uncorked

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

Beginning January 2, 1993, Cite offered unlimited quantities of four different wines, all with a four-course prix fixe dinner the customer could select from the regular menu. The first night, the restaurant served 365 customers -- more than four times the number of patrons who had visited on the same night the previous year.

"At first people thought it was a scam -- it couldn't be unlimited wine, you couldn't order anything you wanted off the menu," Thames remembers. "But they saw they could come in, order our big shrimp cocktail, a sirloin steak, choose any of our twelve desserts."

And drink all they wanted of any or all of the four varieties of wine that were being poured -- a sparkling wine plus two reds and a white (two whites and a red during the summer).

The company backed the scheme with a sizable advertising budget, a half-million dollars this year, according to Thames. The current ad touting the $50 deal is visible on full pages of publications as diverse as Gourmet and the New York Times. Though he says the proposition is "not a money-making situation" in itself, Thames adds that these days wineries must bid to be one of the sixteen labels chosen annually (the wines are rotated on a quarterly basis), and that hundreds of wineries are turned away each year.

Wine columnist Frank Prial says other New York-area restaurants are becoming equally creative. "There's a place in midtown that prices everything at fifteen dollars," he says with a measure of optimism. "As long as there are some places that are doing it well, it puts the lie to the places that aren't. And those places are going to get fewer and fewer people drinking wine."

All of this does have some bearing on Miami. The Grand Cafe, long a bastion of prodigious wine markups, has begun offering a takeoff on the Cite promotion, in which a four-course pre-theater (6:00 until 8:00 p.m.) dinner is offered with four different wines, at a fixed price. Choices are more limited than Cite's, and diners are limited to one glass of each wine apiece, but the price -- $35 per person -- is attractive.

"We want to make this a wine-friendly place," says Rick Garced, the undertaking's instigator. "Even though this is a high-end hotel and our clientele reflects that, I realize people are looking for value in everything they get."

To that end, Garced says, he is updating the wine list -- modifying the sliding scale -- and the cafe also began offering special monthly dinners to showcase different wines and attract more local diners.

Still, as the tables accompanying this article illustrate, restaurant wine pricing remains largely a capricious endeavor locally, subject to proprietors' whims and the prevailing theory that high markups are the key to economic survival A an entrenched belief that is unlikely to change, particularly amid a tourist-reliant economy that presupposes a big-spending crowd.

"What can be done about it?" Captain's Tavern owner Bill Bowers muses. "I don't know that anything can be done about it. Generally, restaurateurs are pretty big assholes.

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