At between a quarter and a third of the cost of a meal out, the share spent on wine is substantial. But you would not know it, judging by the selection and pricing of many a restaurant wine list. 'It's a case of the blind leading the blind,' says Neville Abraham, chairman of Groupe Chez Gerard.
Willie Lebus of Bibendum in north London, the Primrose Hill wine merchant which supplies and advises restaurants, says: 'Wine often comes a very poor second to food. Big groups are cynical in their approach to wine buying. They treat wine like beer or toilet rolls. They think a cheap house wine with a big mark-up is enough. But most customers don't mind paying a bit extra for something interesting to drink.'
Bill Baker of Reid Wines, which also supplies restaurants, says that 'the on-trade is tied up by the big boys. Only occasionally will some breakaway manager get permission to do something different.'
A bleak house wine is at the heart of the problem. Often it accounts for up to 60 per cent of sales because it is the cheapest on the list. But restaurants generally buy their house wines for cheapness, then mark them up to the hilt, giving customers the lowest quality at the highest possible price.
'Demolishing the view of the house wine as god is difficult,' says Mr Lebus. 'Restaurateurs tend to think that if they make their profit margin on the house wine, everything else will follow.'
Quite why anyone should sell plonk in preference to a superior vin de pays which, for the extra few pence, will have customers thirsting for more, remains one of the mysteries of gastronomy.
The good news is that a more enlightened attitude is filtering through via wine bars and restaurants that understand how to attract a value-conscious clientele weaned on travels abroad, supermarket wines and media coverage. The result is a modern, up-to-date wine list with a range catering for a variety of tastes and matching the cooking rather than cashing in at the customer's expense.
The Caprice, the Ivy and the Brackenbury do not offer a house wine at all, favouring an eclectic selection of good-value bottles and wines by the glass. An alternative, adopted by restaurants such as Le Pont de la Tour and Ransome's Dock, is a 'house selection' of wines, with a range also sold by the glass and half-bottle.
Typical of the new way of thinking, Paul Chadwick at Archdukes Wine Bar, Waterloo, is planning to revamp his list by cutting it from 60 wines to 15 reds and 15 whites, and dumping white burgundy, beaujolais and German wine in favour of French regional, Italian and new-world wines.
The fact that French wines account for more than half of restaurant sales (compared with two- fifths in the off-trade) is an indication of conservative attitudes in hotels and restaurants. But the days of going through the old-fashioned motions are numbered. Why select an expensive claret or white burgundy for its label when you can have a good- value new world cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay instead? Why stand for bog-standard valpolicella in preference to a well-chosen Tuscan or Apulian rosso?
Policy on profit margins remains a brake on better lists. According to Jacquie Kay of Berkmann Wine Cellars, 'mark-up needs to be related to overheads, the number of sittings, staff costs and whether or not, for instance, the establishment has linen tablecloths, posh glasses and a good sommelier service'.
Mr Lebus tries to persuade restaurants that reducing the mark- up as the price increases means selling better wine, and more. But for too many restaurants the percentage gross margin is king. 'In London, an acceptable gross margin for running a business and making a profit is between 60 and 65 per cent. In the country it's 55 to 60 per cent,' says Mr Lebus.
Martin Lam of Ransome's Dock, in Battersea, has a ceiling of 60 per cent on the restaurant's gross profit. 'Margins decline as the wines become more expensive. Take the 1989 Masseto, for instance. It costs us pounds 23 excluding VAT and we sell it for pounds 40 including VAT. We sell quite a bit of it. That's the object.'
Tim Hart at Hambleton Hall, Leicestershire has a wine mark-up (the amount by which the cost price is multiplied) of between 1.8 and 2.7. His most expensive wines are marked up the least. 'We try to create a list which will, even at marked-up prices, present attractive options for a range of clients.'
The success of Les Saveurs and Clarke's, or a Loire Valley specialist such as RSJ, all in London, illustrates the benefits of an appealing price ratio of wine to food.
Mark-up policy varies considerably, from the fixed-rate mark-up across the board to the more enlightened policy of charging less for dearer wines as a way of turning over stock and encouraging customers to opt for better quality.
According to Robin Davis of Enotria, a big importer and on- trade supplier, 'a 60 per cent gross margin is low. Most establishments multiply the cost of their wines by 3 or 3.5 (in other words, 70 per cent or more gross profit for the restaurant). It is difficult to make restaurateurs take the intelligent approach of pricing wine more reasonably and making it fun for customers. It's not so much greed as stupidity. The more you pay, the better value you should get.'
We will all raise our glass on the day that becomes the rule rather than the exception.
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