This article was not conceived as a thorough computer-assisted analysis of South Florida wine lists. Thus, while an index of the wine lists compiled appears below, the tables that accompany this story do not single out restaurants by name. Their purpose is merely to illustrate the vast variation one is likely to encounter when ordering wine at a restaurant, and presumably to goad restaurant-goers with an appreciation for wine into educating themselves.
The roster of restaurants surveyed is neither random nor systematic. But it was assembled on the advice of local wine and food professionals, and it does constitute a fair sampling in terms of location, volume of business, and cuisine.
As the thousands of wines were tabulated and compared, a few disturbing facts became clear that are worthy of note. First, restaurant wine lists are dismally prone to a lack of precision and an abundance of error. Many wines are inadequately identified beyond the name of the vintner and type of grape, rendering it difficult to make price comparisons among restaurants. Vintage years, too, are often not supplied A a consumer-unfriendly measure presumably undertaken to save on reprinting costs as one vintage gives way to another. In preparing the charts, only wines that could confidently be compared were used. If a restaurant failed to supply vintages, its wines were only included in the calculations if (1) retail prices did not vary among the likely vintages, or (2) the restaurant's asking price fell within the range of its competitors. (A wine had to appear on at least two lists in order to be included.)
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Most interesting, of course, are the tremendous ranges -- and tremendous markups -- when it comes to how the wines are priced. That bias is reflected in the tables: Wines that were subject to drastic markups or that showed extreme variation in price among restaurants were singled out for inclusion.
It would have been impractical, if not impossible, to determine the wholesale price each restaurateur pays a distributor for each wine. That amount is dependent on factors (such as volume) that vary from restaurant to restaurant. Therefore, for purposes of comparison, retail prices gathered from local liquor stores and, when necessary, from national wine-industry publications, are supplied. In virtually every case, the reader can be certain that the restaurant's actual cost is less than the retail price.
Having examined the wine offerings at only 22 establishments, it would be unfair to say that the Armadillo Cafe and the Captain's Tavern are the only local restaurants that offer wines at reasonable prices. Indeed, comparative bargains can be found at many, if not all, of the restaurants surveyed, assuming the consumer takes the time to carefully discern them. As the Grand Cafe's Rick Garced says, "Any wine list has hidden treasures. My advice is to ask servers what they are. When people ask for something like that, the credibility of the restaurant is on the line. And usually people know something. Maybe they know only one wine and what it costs at the liquor store. But they'll be able to judge from that."
Joe's Stone Crab*
Max's South Beach
Osteria del Teatro
* Wine list does not supply vintage years
Vintage years for red wines only