A wine lover's lament

Pam Frampton
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"Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating, and to me as necessary."

- Ernest Hemingway "A Moveable Feast."

Every girl (of legal kvetching age) is entitled to a little whine on her birthday, and this is mine, so here I go.

Every time I have dinner in a restaurant where the wine prices are double and triple what you'd pay for the bottle off a store shelf, I feel like I'm acquiescing to being ripped off.

If I'm charged $38 for a $13.49 bottle of Las Moras Malbec Reserva, or $42 for a $16.99 bottle of Wolf Blass Yellow Label, or an astounding $48 for an $11.76 bottle of KWV Chenin Blanc - and these are actual prices from St. John's restaurants - good manners dictate that I smile and say thank you as I fork over more than I should of my hard-earned cash.

That same $48 bottle of KWV Chenin Blanc, by the way, is being sold for $8.41 per glass in one restaurant. At eight three-ounce glasses per bottle, that generates a total of $67.28 - a tidy profit indeed on the $11.76 shelf price.

Of course, no one forces a gun to my head and makes me order a bottle of wine, or wine by the glass. I am there of my own free will.

And yes, restaurants have to make a buck, too. I understand that. St. John's offers rich and varied opportunities for fine dining which I enjoy as often as I can.

But restaurants could go a little easier on the markup and potentially make more money. Imagine the scenario with lower prices: why, that Cabernet Sauvignon was so reasonably priced and delicious, I think I'll order another bottle for my table and, what the heck, we'll have dessert, too.

Wine lovers, often, are food lovers. The pairing of wine and food is like a good marriage - each supports the other and complements the other's strengths. So people who eat at restaurants often enjoy wine with their food.

But the food can leave a nasty taste in your mouth when you know the wine it's served with has been priced beyond what is reasonable.

Asking too much

Why should we be expected to pay $50 for a Mark West Chardonnay that costs $18.49? Why is there a need to make $31.51 in profit on one bottle of wine?

And by-the-glass prices are worse. Seven dollars for a glass of wine from a bottle that costs less than $12? Please.

True, the restaurant has to suck up valuable space storing and chilling wine, and there is extra work involved in serving it - bringing ice buckets, offering a sample taste for the patron's approval and pouring at least the first couple of glasses.

And some fine dining restaurants hire sommeliers to develop wine lists and help patrons make informed choices.

But what we're being asked to pay, in many instances, is completely over the top.

And I'm not alone in thinking this way. Far from it.

Prices at our fingertips

As Gretchen Roberts writes in the May 7, 2010 online edition of Wine Enthusiast Magazine:

"In a recent survey of consumers' wine-buying habits in restaurants, Julie Brosterman, CEO of WomenWine.com, found that 70 per cent of respondents felt restaurant wine prices were too high.

"'People are savvier about wine markups than they used to be,' Brosterman says. 'They know retail prices, and they can look up wine prices on their BlackBerrys while sitting in the restaurant.'"

Yes we can. And the results of that search can cause out-and-out indigestion.

On a recent trip to England, my husband and I were pleasantly surprised to find reasonably priced wine on the menu in pubs and fine dining establishments alike.

Often, the bottle cost only a couple of pounds more than it did in the store.

And in many pubs, there were great deals - buy two glasses of wine and get the rest of the bottle for free was common. After all, at the price charged per glass, the cost of the bottle is more than covered after two glasses are sold. Rather than risk the rest of the wine not being sold and going off, they gave it to their patrons.

And you didn't have to consume it on the spot - you could plunk the bottle into your purse and take it home with you.

Infinitely reasonable, but you can't do that here.

Pubs there also provided more information than we often do about their wine lists, and often offered wine suggestions matched with items on their menu.

A wide array of reasonably priced wines were often grouped under descriptive headings, such as "crisp and dry," or "full-bodied and fruity."

There are pubs in this city that still don't have decent wine glasses, let alone decent wine lists.

I love dining out and I'll keep ordering wine when I do. But I think there's room for restaurants to meet patrons halfway and ease up on the markup.

No one likes to feel gouged.

News of a restaurant with decent wine prices would spread like wildfire among wine lovers.

But until there are more of them, I'll be cooking at home more often and popping a cork or two.

Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram's associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at pframpton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton

Geographic location: St. John's, England

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Recent comments

  • Colin Burke
    August 14, 2012 - 10:28

    "the NLC...is keeping Newfoundland's alcohol and hospitality industries in the Dark Ages." What a slander on the Dark Ages that seems to be! I, no historian mind you, have a strong impression from very general reading that anyone who tried to establish anything like the NLC during that period would at the very least have been put in a pillory. And no one then, I'm also inclined to feel, would have been crass enough to link the words "hospitality" and "industry" in the same phrase. And, of course, the High Middle Ages, which the ignorant deem also to have been Dark, were even more enlightened in that regard than the actual "Dark" Ages.

  • JH
    August 12, 2012 - 16:52

    A good article, and I entirely agree that restaurant wine prices are outrageous. I look forward to a response from Karl Wells ..... Not long ago in a small town in Australia, we ended up in a small restaurant without a wine list. "No worries," said our server, "there's a bottle shop just down then street." So I went along and bought a bottle and brought it back. No problem. I can't remember whether there was a corkage charge, but if it had been anything significant I would have remembered. I just thought this was all very civilized. And when can we allow supermarkets to stock wine and beer? It might be an election winner, who knows. Jim Hiller

  • David
    August 11, 2012 - 18:23

    Pam, just thank your good fortune that you are oblivious how much the NLLCB marked up that bottle of wine to start with. But hey, someone's gotta pay for the kind of incredible government services (inlcuding NLLCB's ultra-contented bunch) and leadership that we have here in Newofundland, right?

  • Skeptical Cynic
    August 11, 2012 - 18:10

    I've visited restaurants in Montreal where you can bring your own bottle of wine and have it with your meal... I believe restaurants in B.C. have now also begun offering this option to their patrons. Until a similar option is implemented in NL, I for one will refuse to be ripped off by downtown restauranteurs trying to gouge a buck out of their patrons with outrageous mark-ups on otherwise low-cost wines under the guise of indulging some silly pseudo-elitist pretentions of their generally middle-class clientel. On a related note, Ms. Frampton mentions the Argentinian Las Moras Malbec... this winery's Tannat and Shiraz are highly recommended as well.

  • Ron Tizzard
    August 11, 2012 - 13:32

    Well said Pam. Prices are not, at all, about customer service, but rather about attracting a 'well-heeled' consummer group. It's about status. Finer dining has a similar pricey-tag...but then, the labour goes into each plate....it's not turned out the same as 'vats of wine'; in finer restaurants, plates of food are developed by the 'each'...and the food is the raison-d'etre for the vist to the eatery! The wine is, indeed, very often, just a 'very pricey subliminal status ingredient. My opinion. If not, enjoy?

  • Steamer
    August 11, 2012 - 12:12

    Pam, A lot of what you suggest would be illegal under our current liquor laws, such as the offering of free wine and the consumption of alcohol off-premises. As a result, there is only one thing that you can do; demand reform of our outdated and ridiculous liquor laws. The other option is to stop rewarding mediocrity by frequenting establishments with subpar service and outrageous prices. Kudos to you for making more meals at home. Still, though, the very act of buying a bottle of wine for home consumption rewards the NLC which is the very institution that is keeping Newfoundland's alcohol and hospitality industries in the Dark Ages...

  • Paddyjoe
    August 11, 2012 - 10:52

    En route to Montreal recently I had a few hours stopover in Moncton. I took a taxi to a recommended Italian Restaurant. The place was spotlessly clean and the service was frienfly and efficient. I ordered a chardonnay and was surprised at the price of $4.95 a glass. In speaking with the manager afterwards he said that he simply adds $7.00 to the cost of what the bottle retails for and that is his profit on that particular bottle bottle---What a novel concept!----In Montreal, bars and restaurants regularly had 2 for one on all wines----On Crescent Street, a popular area for night-life a glass of popular wine seldom cost more than $6.00. And on down at the heel, dirty, smelly George Street, bar and restaurant owners have to cheek to charge an average of $8.00 per glass for a $12.00 bottle of Yellow Tail---give me a break-----PLEASE!

    • Ron Tizzard
      August 13, 2012 - 08:23

      'down at the heel, dirty, smelly George Street! Paddy Joe, Please give me a break, and don't belittle your own 'good taste' and eagreness to sample the total ambiance of George St. Why belittle such a world-reknown strip-of-fun and reknown. I was speaking to a group of 'well-heeled' Execs. in Ottawa several years ago...before speaking to my topic, I was shouteddown and asked to share some information about 'George St' they all had heard so much about. I gave them 15 minutes and moved on...PADDY JOE, you are in a league of your own...! Lighten up!