Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Just A Spectator

One has to wonder where Matt Kramer, writer for The Wine Spectator, is shopping and dining lately. In an article posted on May 15th 2012 (link here), Mr. Kramer bashed restaurants, and retailers citing high prices on “by the glass” (BTG) programs and advised customers to shop around.

“Let me be blunt: If you go to a restaurant and buy a wine by the glass, you’re a chump.”  - Matt Kramer
Well I guess Mr. Kramer must be dining at the likes of The Olive Garden and TGI Friday’s. It’s not too hard to scour the internet and find restaurants that are running successful BTG programs both here in CT and beyond. I wonder what wine directors such as Rajat Parr, Michael Madrigale, Gretchen Thomas, Steven Semaya and Rebecca Banks think about Mr. Kramer’s assessment of BTG programs? My bet is it’s a one fingered or two word response.

Mr. Kramer does tell some truths that most restaurants wouldn’t deny or even try to defend. The reason for high pricing for BTG programs is simple economics and business survival. Opening a singular bottle of wine for one glass is a risk. If the bottle sours before another glass is poured, all the profit from the bottle is lost. A restaurant needs to recover its cost from glass one to mitigate risk. It’s a simple formula that has worked for decades. If the restaurant is not recovering its cost from glass one, well, it’s not going to be around for long. A restaurant is a business. Businesses exist for profit, not for loss. Suggesting that restaurant BTG programs make “highway robbery look like a misdemeanor” shows a lack of business knowledge and simple economics. And just to drive the point home, Mr. Kramer also commented “…but have you noticed that prices have gone up commensurately?” Perhaps Mr. Kramer would like to see the wholesale costs for wine across the country. Wines that were once $96 per case wholesale have risen to $112 and $118. That’s an almost 20% increase in wholesale prices. But I guess Mr. Kramer expects restaurants and retailers eat the cost of inflation. Of course, he does nothing to offer advice on ordering from BTG programs. He is, after all, just a spectator.

Here’s some useful advice when ordering wine “by the glass”. It can be a tricky business. However, if you’re dining at the right restaurants you can easily navigate the list and find something enjoyable to drink.
  1. Ask to have a small taste of the wine you’re interested in. If you don’t like it, you’re your server/bartender why and ask them to make a suggestion that might better suit your palate.
  2. Go outside your comfort zone. Many hidden gems can be found in “by the glass” programs as the selections tend to be something the wine director really felt strongly about. It’s an opportunity to unearth a new wine for your own list.
  3. Ask your bartender/server what’s the hottest wine on their list. Often times that wine will be the freshest and is guaranteed to please if it’s what you’re in the mood for.
  4. Don’t be afraid to say “I think this wine is past its prime. Could you open a fresh bottle?” Often times, bartenders or servers don’t know how long the wine has been open and may not realize it should be put to pasture.

 “They Don’t Want You to Know That You Should Shop Around for the Best Price” - Matt Kramer
No other statement could infuriate me more than such a blatant attack on the small retailers in the wine business. Mr. Kramer fails to recognize the economic, lifestyle and industrial consequences behind such a statement. Yes, it is certainly true that the current laws governing the shipping of wine between states is changing almost monthly. And yes, there are many on-line retailers that will sell you a bottle for pennies above cost and offer you free shipping. However, does that website understand your own individual palate? Do they know you’re a New York Ranger fan and wish you luck as the puck drops for game 5? Will they offer to deliver those two cases you ordered to your house before you head to the islands for the weekend? Do they know the names of your kids? The likely answer is no!
Recently, I posted the following two comments on my Facebook page

“Here's a thought, you’re careful where you buy your food, your technology and your car. Why aren't you as discerning about where you buy your wine? Buying from flash sale sites and discounters supports fraud, dishonesty and in extreme cases, criminality.”
 “Sure, you could go to that liquor store down the street tonight and taste the same boring shit they always pour and buy the same bottle you always buy. Or you could come to my store and learn about Sylvaner, taste a new Viognier and Cote du Rhone from Rhone's hottest new team and one bad ass Nebbiolo from the Langhe in Italy. Expand and learn or just another bottle of blah. Your choice.”

By shopping on flash sale sites, big box discounters and chain stores, consumers are cheating the small retailer who will gladly open Sylvaner, Condrieu and Cairgnane in an effort to educate and expand palates. These retailers provide a higher level of professionalism, service and knowledge. But these qualities come at a price. High quality organic foods, well machined automobiles, streamlined technology, the hottest designer clothes and shoes are difficult to produce, difficult to distribute efficiently and difficult to service. So are high quality, well made wines. That doesn’t mean one has to spend a fortune to experience these wines. They can still be found at $12 per bottle. They just can’t be found in the big box discounters and chains. Why? Because they generally have no press and require a staff that can speak to the wine and how it tastes. That staff is expensive. If you are concerned about high prices for the wine you’re buying, shop around, find a reasonable price and ask YOUR retailer if he can match it. Odds are he/she can at least get close. And remember, if the deal looks to good to be true, it probably is. In an age where Burgundy houses make statements questioning the validity of any Burgundy bottling with a vintage dating 1985 or earlier, provenance in the wine industry is as important as ever. Find out where the wine has been and how many people have handled it. Of course, Mr. Kramer doesn’t offer this advice because he’d rather the consumer rely on the publication he writes to strike fear in the consumer and sell more magazines.

Finally, regarding the issue of “premox”, Mr. Kramer is right. There are many white Burgundies that have prematurely reached their decline. These wines fooled many of us including, ironically, The Wine Spectator who routinely suggested these wines would last years. The current condition of older vintage white Burgundy will make us question the longevity of certain wines in the future. But it is precisely the reason I have always advocated the purchase of cases and suggested clients pull from those cases on a regular basis to determine how the wines are progressing. Smart merchants will learn from failure and adjust recommendations accordingly. But I don’t see Mr. Kramer offering that advice. He is, after all, just a spectator. 


  1. Great post! thanks for the shout out too!

  2. Thanks for the compliment and my pleasure.

  3. Peter,
    I have a question do you have an email I can reach you at?

  4. Hi Maggie,
    Use Hope I can help.