How to maximize your restaurant wine buying dollars.
By Bruce Bauer
I have been meaning to put my thoughts about how to maximize your restaurant wine buying dollars to print for a long time. I was finally motivated by a similar article in the Wall Street Journal (the link is now invalid) where they listed their top ten ways to get the most drink for your dollar. It was pretty informative, but from being in the wine biz for almost…ack…20 years, I think they could’ve made it even more applicable to real life.
So with that, my Ten Tips to let the restaurant know you are not to be trifled with!
1. If you are in a restaurant and there isn’t one bottle under $35…assuming you don’t get up and leave…then know you are getting hosed for your wine. With the boatloads of great, inexpensive Euro wines out there, there is absolutely zero reason that a wine list doesn’t offer at least 2 or 3 reasonably priced bottles under $35. Also, when you see a wine list that doesn’t have any deals, chances are the markup on the rest of the list is exorbitant, and those $45+ bottles should actually be priced at $35….or less.
2. In one of the worst bits of buying advice I’ve ever read, the WSJ says: “Skip wine by the glass. Restaurateurs like to make enough on a single glass to pay for a whole bottle.” Maybe where they eat out on their newspaper expense accounts (is it any wonder the newspaper biz in this country is circling the drain?), but a lot, if not most, new restaurants are offering real value in their by-the-glass programs. Plus it is a great way to expand your palate and try different wines with different dishes. Especially if you don’t mind sharing tastes. The one caveat: if there isn’t any wine under $10 a glass, then assume you aren’t getting much value.
3. When it comes to European wines, head south. Invariably, wines from the south of France (think the Rhone Valley, Languedocs, and in Burgundy the Macon and Beaujolais region) and southern Italy (Puglia, Campania, Sicily, etc.) are much better values than the wines from the northern areas of these countries, i.e. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, and the Piedmont. Plus, European wines, virtually without exception, are more food-friendly with their generally higher acidity levels than their domestic counterparts. If you don’t know by looking at the list, ask. Part of you saving money means that you have to take some of the control back, okay?
4. When it comes to Italian wines specifically, I’d love to drink nothing but Barolos and Barbarescos, the noble Nebbiolo based reds from Italy’s Piedmont. Sadly, except for very special occasions, they are a bit out of my price league. But I will happily slurp down bottles of Barbera, also from Piedmont, which in my opinion is perhaps the greatest, most versatile food wine in the world, and a generally good value on most lists.
5. Agreeing with the WSJ, when it comes to white wines, skip the chardonnay. One of my favorite current go-to whites are the über-food friendly Gruner-veltliners from Austria, which are dry, have racy acidity, and bright, spice-infused fruit. Also be on the lookout for Muscadet from France’s Loire Valley, one of the world’s greatest white wine values, and perhaps the ultimate wine to have with freshly shucked oysters. For my palate Euro whites seemingly always deliver more pleasure with food than American whites, which tend to be more one dimensional.
6. When it comes to American reds, get away from the cabernet and merlot hegemony. Look to the Rhone varietals from California…syrah, Grenache, and blends. Also zinfandel or petite syrah. Being from Oregon, I’d like to say Oregon pinot noir can be a great alternative, but I have seen so many lists with mostly large local producers at exorbitant pricing that it is definitely a buyer beware area. Unfortunately most of the delicious, and more reasonably priced local juice from our smaller producers doesn’t get exported far out of state. If the Oregon list contains names such as Beaux Freres, Archery Summit, Domaine Drouhin, or Willakenzie (among others…want names? Just ask), you’re going to regret your buying decision.
7. The one country that is just killing it in the bang-for-the-buck category right now is Spain. Forget the more well known regions of Rioja, Ribera del Duero, or Priorat. Other areas, like Bierzo, Campo de Borja, Jumilla, Navarra, Toro, and others deliver tons of drinking pleasure for extremely reasonable prices.
8. Communicate. If you feel a reasonable rapport with your server, ask them what they are liking on the list within whatever price range you are comfortable with. Don’t ever feel forced into buying outside your comfort zone.
9. Bring your own bottle. Otherwise known as paying the corkage fee. If you have a special bottle at home that you’ve been saving, what better time to pop that cork. Feel free to call the restaurant and see if they have a corkage policy. Most do. I am happy to pay up to $20 a bottle to have them open up that treasure from my cellar. Having said that, there are a couple of rules to follow: a) don’t look at the corkage as a way to “beat the system”. Don’t grab some ten dollar red from your local store just to save a few dollars (a $20+ bottle is fine). As much as I want you to save money, that, not to be impolite, is being a cheap-ass in the worst way; b) Check with the restaurant to see if the wine you’re planning on bringing is already on their wine list. If it is (except say if you have a ’98 Barolo and they sell the same producer in an ’03) leave yours at home. When it comes to corkage, use common sense and courtesy.
10. In your town, or if you find yourself in a strange town, ask at the local independent wine shop which restaurants they feel have good wine lists for value. Hopefully, we all know a thing or two about what’s happening food and wine wise in our cities.
11. (I know I said 10, but more information is a good thing)- I love real Champagne from France. LOVE IT! But it is almost never anywhere near a good deal on restaurant wine lists. When a local restaurant that shall go unnamed…cough…Ten-01…cough…hit me with an egregious $25 a glass charge for a flute of Bollinger NV, I felt, well, violated in the worst way. So in general I find myself more than satisfied with fizzy prosecco from Italy or a chilled cava from Spain, and save my Champagne indulgence for the home front.
One other amusing point the WSJ made that bears repeating: don’t ever order Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, perhaps the biggest rip-off in the wine business. They are a huge producer with unconscionably high prices for mediocre grigio.
I’m sure there are more items I’ll be adding to my wine buying tip sheet. If you have other thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear your comments. Remember, we’re all in this together!
[Bruce Bauer writes the popular Wine Guy World blog. Every so often we are lucky enough to cross-post his articles.]
Great suggestions for all the regions listed and I really thought you nailed it when you referred to all of the usual suspects here in Oregon and the unfortunate dearth of options when it comes to smaller, and to my mind, better local producers.
For years, I have purchased wine from Bruce at Vino. Not only
is he a very good guy with an amazing wit,the preamble to his weekly
wine buys email is often hilarious, he knows his wine,
his customers cravings, and how to throw a party. I am forever grateful for Bruce turning me onto Three Winds from France. Cheap. Yum. His weekend tastings are not to be missed especially in summer. And then, there’s his blog, always a good read. His sister, Kathleen, writes the GoodStuffNW blog. I guess good taste runs in the family.
I think his blog is called Eat.Drink.Think not Wine Guy World.
Have corkage fees in Portland always been as high as they seem to be? I would consider $20 to be an extremely high price to pay for basically no service…I didn’t get the opinion of the sommelier or the wait staff…they are just opening the bottle for me.
I’m somewhat new to Portland, but I don’t remember ever paying more than $2-$4 per person for corkage back east.
$2-$4 per person? I’ve always seen it as per bottle. $10 used to be standard, but now $15-$20 is common.
“Basically no service”? I disagree. You are occupying their space which they clean maintain and pay rent on, drinking their glasses which they washed, and they are opening and pouring the wine.
Would you insist on bringing in a pizza and eating it? Why is wine any different?
When encountering high corkage fees, it strikes me as a justified deterrent against BYO, so people will do so only if it is a single very special bottle. I’ve no problem with that at all.
Food Dude says
I saw $30 corkage somewhere the other day. Can’t remember where.
$30 corkage. oh yes. that would be Beast. Why don’t they just come out and say it – – We don’t want you bringing your own wine! I think they’re all about the pairings and don’t want that disturbed. Reminds me of how Frank Lloyd Wright wouldn’t let people move his furniture around their houses. A genius, perhaps, but it is possible to be seen as a Fascist when going overboard enforcing your tastes and preferences. I guess if the customers keep coming they’re doing the right thing.
When looking at higher Portland BYO fees it is good to note that our beloved OLCC makes this state one of the only places where a restaurant has to have a liquor license to allow you to BYO.
In other places BYO is often cheap or free at places that don’t have a liquor license so by bringing your own they aren’t missing out on selling you something anyway.
Good points on the BYO/corkage. And I agree with pdxyogi’s comments. It is a service they are providing, and does cut into their ticket when they don’t sell the wine off their list.
And the idea of carting an Apizza or Ken’s Artisan pizza into the numerous mediocre pizza joints in town has a lot of merit…I’d gladly pay a $10 “pie charge”!
oh, and thanks bird…very kind words and I appreciate it as I hope you know!
That’s the ticket…Pie-age!
QV: excellent point that it is apples & oranges to compare Oregon corkage fees at licensed places to UNlicensed places’ fees in other states.
Thanks wineguy. They are in business to make money. Not to just provide a place to sit!
Ken Pahlow says
I will say that I agree with most of the article. However, I also LOVE Champagne and getting it by the glass is nice. But realize that that bottle of Champagne at the time was wholesaling at close to $50 dollars a bottle. When you put that into consideration, the glass of bubbles at $25 is a deal. As mentioned don’t ‘skip the wines by the glass’…
Get Bollinger by the glass very often? Not since Bollinger…cough…. their Oregon distributor….cough… raised their price! Big risk to pour by the glass at that cost per bottle. Especially given that by the time you get to the last couple pours, on a slow mid-week dining night it may be less bubbly…..
Ken…Totally appreciate what you had to say, and understand the glass cost at that wholesale. That’s when I think the sommelier at any restaurant has to take it upon themselves to find Champagne that doesn’t wholesale at close to 50 bones. As you and I know, there are plenty of options….and good ones…at the $25-$30 wholesale.
Fair point there are plenty of great grower champagne’s in the $26.60-$35 and when you put one of these on by the glass instead of say Cliquot’s Yellow Label, the sales go down by 2/3s.
The Sommelier’s first job is to put wine on by the glass that sells – if thats Bolli at 25 then good for Erica. I for one was happy to put grower bubbles on by the glass but its a case of putting what I like before what may actually be best for my restaurant. With Champagne in particular the Portland market seems to buy the only the producers they know. As a Somm I can force them into a different decision but the vast majority of people are coming in for drink and dinner not education.
Marshall Manning says
Franzia has a good point here that I’ve often found strange. It seems like the top restaurants (and even many wine shops) go out of their way to find truly interesting, different wines for their lists, but when it comes to Champagne, they almost always go with the big, familiar brands. I realize that it’s easier to sell them, but if the restaurant/wine shop is able to sell Gruner, Muscadet, Chinon, etc., you would think they could also make people enthusiastic about grower Champagne versus the big brands. It’s probably easier to sell Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay than Clos des Briords Muscadet, but if places are committed to selling different, interesting wines, why stop when you get to the bubbles section?
Actually, with so many wines now using the screw-top enclosure to prevent spoilage or cork taint from over-harvested, crummy cork, maybe they should rename the service: Screwage! Or, a bit more polite, based on the sound, Crackage. $10 I can understand. $15 I can tolerate. Above that, I have to say it is screwage at best. If you go back to the top of this article, the first point is that there should be reasonably priced wines on the list. A restaurant can find wines that cost them between $8 and $15 and that are perfectly presentable and food-friendly. I know I can do this at retail stores, and they presumably are getting some kind of break from those prices to begin with on the wholesale side. I know it is hard to make a buck in the restaurant business, but to try and make a 300% or 400% killing on one bottle of wine is not the way to go. The result for me: I now eat out less, and often sip wine before and after the meal, at home, where my screwage charge is far more reasonable – – FREE!
Thanks, Bird, for your very kind words (and sorry it took so long for to find them)! I happen to think my brother’s wine and food writing is some of the best, most creative stuff around, full of life and humor and smarts. Wish more was as good!
so bruce, as our local wine store guy here in pdx– what restaurants (especially interested in the east-side) do you think have great wine lists that are value priced? thanks, jen
Jen, here’s the reply I left to someone who asked the same question on my blog:
“Mark Accuardi, the Godfather of well priced wine at Gino’s in Sellwood has always had the best deals in town. His well-chosen Italian list is sometimes only a $5 a bottle more than retail! Others: Bar Avignon; Tabla; 3 Doors Down (with the best white wine list in town); Castagna Café; EVOE (for fabulous glass AND bottle prices); Nuestra Cocina (where the “Eximius” Portuguese white works wonders with their delish Mexican food). Others? Sure, but I’d rather hear from you all!”
Word Bruce. Thanks for recognizing Tabla’s wine list. Michael is doing a great job of bringing in new/strange wines from france and beyond that do not cost as much as some oak bomb from Cali. He is focusing on Bio Dynamic wines from France, and other more obscure grape variatles from Italy and Spain, and they turn out to be pretty well priced. They are also delicious food wines, with depth, acid, and unique characteristics.
And to make a statement in general, bringing in your own wine if fine, but when you buy a bottle or two from the restaurant’s list as well, that is truly smiled upon as a classy move.
I think that Pour Wine Bar has very modest markups.
FD, this would be a good question to ask your readers, too. What are their favorite (good) restaurants who offer value priced wine lists? Love the comment: Screwage. And if that wine once opened, is no good, it’s ‘screwed?’
Food Dude says
I would, but I’m sure we’d get 500 different restaurants ;)
Eastside. Gino’s (Italian), Nostrana, 3 Doors Down, The Farm Cafe, Bar Avignon. There are probably others but that’s what I could come up with as well as where I go on that side of town that I think offers a combination of decent choices and decent prices.
Steve Wino says
Firehouse (interesting choices at modest prices); Carafe (modest markups, nicer wines)
One of the best wine tips I discovered: Take a bottle to your favorite little downscale Thai or Asian place. Some have NO corkage, some $5, some $10 but I’ve never seen more than that and you skip the normal dismal wine offered by those places. I really get ticked at exorbitant wine prices in restaurants. Wine is always a part of the meal for me and I don’t think I should pay $45 or $50 for an $18 retail bottle.
In Siam Society a year ago I looked at the list, asked the corkage, told the server I had a bottle in the car and walked briskly down the street to Cork Wine Shop. Darryl gave me a better match at a better price, even with corkage. Call me cheap but I felt I got better wine, and better value. Not my fault their bottles were both average grossly overpriced. I like both Darryl and Bruce, both the guys and their great little wine shops.
Thanks Knucklehead. I have to add that both Bruce and I have previously owned restaurants and understand the economics of how restaurants need to make money on alcohol to survive. But there does seem to be a point where the markup gets out of hand. I try to follow an industry practice of buying a bottle off the restaurant’s list in addition to any BYO, but that depends of course how large your group is or how much you’re planning to eat/drink at that meal. Sometimes just ordering a glass of something breaks any tension where a restaurant might not be thrilled you brought a bottle from outside but sees that you aren’t flaunting it in their face. Of course they need to do their part and have decent options by the glass.
A few Eastside joints that have reasonably priced lists that also offer interesting selections are Lincoln, Toro Bravo and Noble Rot.
Food Dude says
I have to echo Darryl. I’ve discovered some great new wines at Lincoln, TB and Noble.
any lists to be avoided, for those of us who don’t know much about markups or what is reasonable? i mean, i know what i can afford and can not afford, but must admit that when out for the rare, fancy dinner i’d probably be suckered into paying more than i ought to.
is it ever worth it to get the $60-$75 bottle instead of the $30-$45 one?
i agree that gino’s has the most reasonable list that i’ve noticed. plus the servers don’t steer you toward something just because it’s pricier, and i’ve never been disappointed with my selection there.
If you are among the millions of people with a web-enabled phone, it is not out of bounds to Google any wine you are thinking of ordering. A great way to see what the mark-up is and whether it is reasonable.
That being said, there are real carrying costs when it comes to a good wine list. Money is tied up in inventory, which is hopefully stored in a decent situation with stable cool temperatures and the correct humidity. A certain number of bottles get sent back, and a certain number may spoil. If wine is sold by the glass, the remnants of a bottle may not make it to the next day and remain flavorful enough to be served. And of course all restaurants need to make a profit to survive. So don’t begrudge them their mark-up; just avoid gouging, which often takes the form of finding halfway decent bottles for $10 or less (restaurant cost) and tripling or quadrupling the price into the $35 to $45 range. In a case like this you will be better off with the more expensive bottle, which proportionately will be marked up less. However, your little Blackberry or iPhone or the like can be your best friend in a situation like this.
Marshall Manning says
If you can afford it, it’s often better to go with the $60-75 bottle over the $30-45 one. Some of the better lists in town use a sliding markup, so the more expensive bottles may be a better deal if you base it solely on percentages. A bottle that wholesales for $10 may be $30 on the list, but a bottle that wholesales for $30 may only be $70. As Bruce pointed out, many good lists also price the more obscure regions/varieties at a lower markup than the “easy sell” items like Cab, Chard, etc., to encourage people to try these wines that may be personal favorites of the wine buyer.
Gaucho is not (or at least historically has not, I have not been in awhile) known for being shy about marking wine up. If you know wine you can often find terrific wines at $65 (for instance a 1999 cru from Produttori) that would be much better deals than some generic third label of some giant CA winery that is going for $35. Clearly it requires having twice the budget for the wine but if that’s feasible you get well more than twice the wine.
Bruce: Great pearls of wisdom. The WSJ riff also said to not ignore house wines. I too really wish more American restaurants offered house wines you see everywhere in Europe and elsewhere. I’ve rarely, if ever, have had a bad house wine in Europe. A place like Gino’s doesn’t matter since they have a kick ass list with tons of great buys. But I wish other places offered something.
Great article, Bruce. Very thoughtful advice.
Thanks Vaugirard and KidP….wouldn’t it be nice to drink house red as good as what you get in Europe? I was at a place in Florence (Italy, not Oregon!) where they put a 1.5 liter bottle of house red on the table and charged you for however much you drank, then refilled it for the next table. It was delicious, btw!
The original Le Bistro Montage (on Belmont) had a house wine that was incredibly cheap and not bad. It was boxed wine, back before it was considered acceptable to drink box wine, and John would give you a carafe and refill it. I think it was $5 a carafe or $5 a person.
Food Dude says
As I do reviews I always look up wine prices to check the markup. Usually they are about 100% internet retail, which I understand. More than that is a bit hard to swallow.
Billy G says
Nice points about wine in restaurants. I wish by the glass programs were truly reasonably priced, as well as the stale bottle thing from improper storage of opened bottles, so I cannot get behind most BTG programs. That said, there is a new place called “Metrovino” that has the big ass glass system (unfortunate name, but good place).
Everyone should be reminded that bringing wine into a restaurant is a privelage, and not a right. The wine should be special enough for one to keep in their cellar, as well as to be taking it in to a restaurant. With a rare exception I’m able to find something servicable if not delicious, and reasonably priced at most of our city’s restaurants. Sorry, but anyone that buys wine from a store moments before entering the restaurant is not frugal, that’s called cheap. I personally avoid the classic steakhouse 3x wholesale wine pricing that seems to go with that territory. Cheers
I have to say that while I can sympathize with the plight of the restaurateur, even in the best of times, this notion that limiting one’s expense is somehow cheap just doesn’t sit well with me. If you accept outside wine, then you have to live with the consequences. Most people are not going to economize like this but if they chose to do so, more power to them. After all, if the chef suddenly gets a good (better) deal on steak that week do you think he will be passing on that saving by lowering the price on the regular menu item? I think not. Nor would I expect her to. Everyone should understand that looking out for one’s own interests is what we all do, to varying degrees and mostly dependent on one’s circumstances. But calling them cheap is a touch rich (sorry, couldn’t resist), IMHO.
Interesting points both ways. I agree with Pdxmo that restaurants who accept wine are taking on some responsibility for opening what the customer brings in. And while I disagree to a certain point with Billy on his “anyone that buys wine from a store moments before entering the restaurant” being cheap, they ARE being cheap if they are carting in some $10 bottle. And yeas we all look out for our own best interests, but hopefully not at the cost of others.
From my experience restaurants try to run a 30% cost on wine. The two ways I have seen them mark up, is tripling their cost on the wine or multiplying times two and adding $10. Most retail environments mark up about 1.5 on their cost.
Assuming this is the case lets run the 2 scenarios: customer A goes to a restaurant orders a bottle of wine at $30. Chances are the cost on that bottle is around $10. Restaurant makes $20.
Customer B buys the same bottle at a retail store for $15 goes to restaurant and gets charged $15. Retailer makes $5, restaurant makes their corkage of $15 or $20.
From this one can see how it “hurts” a restaurant to open bottles of wine that would be on their list for over $35. But given this economy beggars can not be choosers and they’ll have to figure out how to make their money elsewhere. Start putting up rules and not letting them bring in their wines they will inevitably end up going somewhere else to drink their wine. Hopefully it won’t be at home.
I would then disagree with anyone that says it’s “better” to enjoy wines in the $50 plus range. Is enjoyment of wine an algebraic equation? Yes you may get a “better” wine but the restaurant makes a huge margin on the sale of “big” wine. Using the examples in the earlier posts: A restaurant makes $20 bucks on a $10 marked up to $30, and makes $40 on a wine costing $30 marked up to $70.
Those few restaurants that mark up their wine $15 or $20, present a great value. Those are the places one would want to go “big” on wine purchase. (Actually can’t think of one right now in Portland that does.)
My advice to anyone is to find that great $30 bottle in the restaurant. The better wine buyers are in the restaurants and what they look for is that great sub $10 wine they can put on the list for $30. When I taste wines that are presented the last thing I want to hear from the sales rep is the price. I go through my routine of tasting it and ask myself what price I could see the wine on my list. If it’s drinking like a $50 bottle and it’s going to cost me $9, I’m pretty much sold. Especially now because that is what is moving on wine lists these days.
The best value in wine in my opinion is (good) wine in a box. You’ll see more and more of that I believe in the years to come.
Here some other numbers to think about. 90% of the wine sold is from retail environments (10% from restaurants). That number one year ago was 85%. Just to give the public an idea of the state of restaurants this means that restaurants in general have seen a drop of 33% in wine sales. (These numbers where from one the bigger distributors in Portland) Keep in mind this is a combination of the drop in people eating in restaurants and people not spending as much on wine in restaurants.
People have a choice on what and where they’re going to spend their money own. The best thing you can due to support the local economy is to buy from the local economy. As much as I love wines from around the world, there is plenty of great wine to drink and explore in the Northwest.
What is all this talk about boxed wine? Is this some new “slumming it up” fad? Guess I am out of the loop…
about that boxed stuff. Here’s a bit of a fill-in on the technology involved: there’s an asceptic plastic package within the wine box. There is no oxygen in the package. As the package is drained down, it simply shrinks around the remaining wine. As mentioned by others, no air is drawn into the package, and thus, the wine does not oxidize and become vinegar. As such, this packaging could be ideal for wine-by-the-glass programs.
The bigger question comes down to the quality of wines sold ‘by the box.’ There are some very decent Australian varietals available in this form factor, and some California wines among others. But this concept has not taken hold big time, at least not with top- and second-tier wineries. So while I think you might get a few nights’ worth of vin de table for your home meals out of a wine box, I’m not thinking that boxed wine is ready for wine list prime time, until the offerings move up a notch or two in sophistication.
I offered Cameron Pinot Noir bag in a box at The Heathman for about 5 weeks and it seemed to go over very well. If it’s a good producer and it’s good wine, the storage and therefore drinkability is superior to gassing a bottle. I think most people pay attention to what’s in the glass, most of our customers would’ve been surprised had they known where it came from (BOX)- but I had far less of that wine sent back then other bottlings.
Marshall Manning says
Actually, DST, most retail establishments in Portland run pretty close to a 30% margin (or about a 1.43 mark up). There are some that are generally less and some that are a bit more, but that’s fairly standard.
There are lots of restaurants in town that have better values in the $50-75 range. We haven’t been out as much as we’d like to lately, but the last time I was at Navarre, for example, I looked over the list and there were a lot of interesting items in that price range that were good values as far as restaurant lists are concerned. Same thing with our last visits to Tabla and Lincoln. We have a decent cellar, and generally prefer to drink more complex, aged, wines with good meals, so we often bring wines from home, but all of these places have some really interesting wines at reasonable prices.
And for those who were asking about other restaurants that have great wine pricing, don’t forget Podnah’s Pit BBQ. Rodney has a very interesting list of Rhone wines that are generally priced only a little above retail (especially on the higher end). And yes, I do supply some of his items, but the fact is that he has some of the best prices in the city.
Boxed wine is by far the best way to store wine and works especially well for wines by the glass programs. Boxes (as opposed to cork stoppered bottles) let no oxygen into the wine after opening so the wine is as vibrant from the first pour to the last. It’s funny the way traditionalists eschew “new fangled” methods of wine storage vessels (see screwcaps…..which is a far superior sealing method to cork). Is it snobbery? Who knows!
Food Dude says
I know a lot of people who would argue, while different, screw tops are not necessarily the best thing for wine. Lots of pros and cons for each one for such a blanket statement.
vehement disagreement. I have talked to numerous Northern CA winemakers and the consensus is, corks are a mediocre at best closure. The argument is, “What is the purpose of a wine bottle closure?” Turns out that any concept of breathing or anything of the like simply represents damage to a bottle of wine. In other words, once the wine has been held in barrels and then finally bottled, the function of the closure is to be just that, by which I mean, a CLOSURE. That is, no additional air or anything else should reach the wine until you unbottle it. Therefore, since most if not all cork trees have been over-harvested, and the density and integrity of the corks can not be assured regardless of price paid, it is the judgement of many (admittedly leading-edge) wine makers world wide that the cork is both obsolete and inferior to screw closures, which promise a close to zero rate of ‘cork taint’ and other forms of spoilage. About the only question remaining is just how ‘neutral’ one can make a closure, since the wine now touches a piece of plastic instead of a piece of cork. However, there is no need to keep the ‘cork’ moistened. Therefore, screw-cap-finished wine can be stored upright, with zero contact between the wine and the closure. Given the tragic levels of cork taint, combined with cork failure and other forms of leakage, it is hard to believe that open-minded, clear-thinking wineries would consider any other closure. The cork finish may offer traditional comfort and a satisfying ‘pop’ when the cork is pulled out, but that’s about the end of the virtue list. Screw it, I say. At least when it comes to wine.
I can’t speak to our leading-edge credentials and while while we like to think we’re open-minded, we’re often decidedly not clear-thinking. (Do you have to be clear-thinking to be leading-edge? Perhaps that’s why it eludes us.) But at the winery that employs me we are partial to cork. For one thing, a screw cap is made of aluminum and plastic. Not exactly limitless resources. Corks can be be purchased from small family farms that are getting better at managing their resource. Some have been in business for generations. Corks are natural and sustainable. It is only the bark that is harvested to make corks, not the entire tree.
Additionally, plastic gets brittle over time and contact with alcohol only seems to hasten that process. Our experiments with plastic corks resulted in wines that only aged for one year before becoming compromised.
We request bale samples from our cork supplier and test every cork for TCA. It takes time but the diligence has led to surprisingly few bottles suffering form contamination. In six years of buying the wine as retailer and working at winery I can’t recall encountering more than a half dozen bottles being corked. That includes all the ones we open and all the wines that are returned by accounts.
Oh-and we do find the ‘pop’ sound comforting.
Carafe has modest markups but the great thing about them is if you’re bringing in a nice treasure from home, they will waive the corkage fee so long as you share a glass with the staff.
Steve Wino says
I had that same experience at Carafe for some time. Then, six months or a year ago, we offered a taste to the waiter but got the corkage fee anyway. Their $10 corkage fee is reasonable so I haven’t offered again since. I am curious whether others have had recent experiences one way or the other.
Hope this comment string hasn’t died. Here’s a question out to iPhone users. What is the best iPhone app for wine? Is it the Wine Enthusiast, Drync, Wine Snob or something else?
the best iphone app, also the best ‘any internet enabled cell phone’ app, is google via your browser. Just put in the name and vintage of any wine and see what you find. typically you’ll find merchants somewhere with some kind of retail price, along with some commentary. The good news is that most wine buyers at restaurants know what they are doing. In other words, the wine will be at worst decent and at best either exceptional or at least a good buy. So it is more a question of seeing what the retail price of the wine is, and judging from there if you are getting a reasonable deal or not.