This slightly stale topic is set to re-emerge with the new SA Top 100 Wines Wine List Competition, and your faithful wine scribe has been given the mantle of “Consumer Good Value Award Judge” for the competition. I think I owe this privilege to a slight misunderstanding about what “consumer” means. As such, I have been mulling wine lists over in my mind recently.
There are some fantastic wine lists out there, please don’t get me wrong, but there is a disease of boring, careless, drek as well. Wine lists composed with the imagination of a brain bathed in tepid-water, whose purpose is more to nab bucks out your wallet than make your meal memorable.
Considering restaurant wine-lists in South Africa reminded me immediately of a recent South Park episode where Cartman’s mom doesn’t get him an iPad. His response:
Would you mind loaning me some of your lipstick mom? Because I wanna at least look pretty next time you decide to fuck me!
That’s exactly what I want to say to a restaurant owner when I sit down and see 200-300% mark-ups on boring wines, chosen from big companies who have bought their way in with umbrellas, ice-buckets, and at times cold, hard, bitter cash.
But that’s just the foreplay. When you order the best of the worst, it arrives in glassware nigh on Tupperware, warm, and poured by someone who will, in all probability, argue with you if you tell them it is corked. By this point I am bruised, tender and ready for my post-coital smoke.
I don’t mind paying a mark-up; the restaurants have to make money. But that mark-up must be in relation to the sort of wine service that is offered. But before I look at some simple solutions, I have one other complaint. The buying of positions on wine lists. This is a terrible practice that takes place all over Cape Town, but I am sure it happens elsewhere places too.
The arrogant restaurant, in their belief that a spot on their wine list is so important, and knowing that wineries are fighting for a place on any wine list they can get, will ask the winery for a fee to be listed. The highest I found in Cape Town was R5 000 a wine. Oily, slimy, greedy bastards.
Very smart. You make more money. Good for you. But you will end up with tasteless, repetitive wine lists. Restaurants should be supporting our wine industry – working with them not trying to squeeze every cent out of them. And for what? It’s not like the consumer is winning here. They are still forking over wads of cash for the same wines. “Harder Mr. Restaurateur, harder!”
The reasoning is simple: the smaller producers just don’t have the cash, and the big boys who do will fork-out for the listings, meaning we see the same wines over and over again. It is a very frustrating practice.
Consider this: maybe I can’t break restaurant habits of demanding listing fees, but how about taking it in stock, and using a portion of it as tasters for your customers? An inelegant compromise, but at least someone is escaping getting screwed, or just screwed a little more gently.
There are some basics that restaurants need to get right. Serve your wine as you would serve it to yourself. Respect it as much as you would your food. Would you serve a cold stew? A hot insalata caprese? (Well actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a chef somewhere serving a deep fried caprese in a cold beef-stew foam). The point is, wine can elevate the meal and make the entire dining experience better. But that takes work, and maybe giving up on a few free umbrellas.
Temperature is important. Get it right. So is glassware. If you are charging a silly mark-up (for me this is anything over 150%) then I want great glassware. Or be smart. If you are a small Italian restaurant, how about serving your entry level red and whites in a decanter with a tumbler? Much better than thick, gross, cheap goblets.
Here’s a cool idea I read about the other day. John Slover, a sommelier in New York, has started offering customers the chance to buy half a bottle. The other half is then available to other diners. There is no difference in price, simply half price of the full bottle. This means that people will order more wine. You share a bottle, but don’t want another full one (you are not dining with me, obviously), then you and your partner can share a half. Brilliant.
I could go on. Make sure you have some great value wines (How about wines with some age on them?), properly trained staff, more wines by the glass. You, as a restaurant could try a specials board that changes regularly, and heaven forbid, features something from outside South Africa. But unless you give a shit about your wine list, nothing is going to change. Until you start seeing it as something that is as important as your food, décor, and staff, we will always have boring lists with massive mark-ups.
Diners, you can do something too. Bring your own. And when you ask about corkage, make a point of saying that you are bringing wine – and as such the restaurant is losing money – because the wine list is kak. Or you can just ask for some lipstick and bend over.
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