Why do most restaurants serve sucky wine?

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smWent out to dinner and a comedy club a couple of nights ago, and my wife wanted a glass of white wine.  So I went up to the bar and inquired about their white wine selection.

As is all too often the case, I was informed it was Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc.  No winery names, no vintages.  Just Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc.  Upon further inquiry, the wines were pretty much what you usually get at most restaurants,  megawinery productions.

I decided that of the four wines on offer, the Coppola sounded like it was the most promising of the unexciting selection.  My wife’s critique:  marginally ok, but soft and uninteresting.  A fairly common critique of wines when you think about it.  I have little doubt that had I picked any of the other wines, it would have been just as lackluster.

Without doubt, there are many restaurants that serve an interesting and eclectic variety of wines.  But there are many more like the one we were at that make do with a stable of wines that lack interest.  Why is that?

I think that the main reason for this is that most restaurants don’t have a compelling interest in wine.  And if you don’t have that interest, chances are you’re going to delegate your wine selections to some distributor rep.  And most distributor reps work for large distributors, which sell the major brands.  And the major brands usually turn out uninteresting, inoffensive wines.

Have you been to a mall lately?  If you have, I can pretty much guess the stores you found there.  The regional mall has become a cookie-cutter host of stores—the mall in Los Angeles looks indistinguishable in most respects from a mall in Maine or Pennsylvania.  If you want a special store that sells special products, it can still be found.  But they must the searched out.

Wine is pretty much the same.  While there are plenty of places that do offer wines of interest and variety, they must be searched out.  You can’t just walk into a restaurant and expect it as a matter of course.

While I lay greatest blame on the way most restaurants buy wine, honorable mention must also go the consumer, who tolerates this situation.  Many consumers are somewhat unknowledgeable when it comes to wine, but lack of knowledge doesn‘t require that you acquiesce in being served a wine that is, at best, bland.  But obviously they do, or else restaurants couldn’t get away with serving these wines.

I commented several weeks ago about the concentration in the US wine industry.  Unfortunately, this is a fact of life that isn’t going to change any time soon, if ever.  It’s discomforting to think that the bulk of the wine business has more in common with Coca-Cola and Pepsi than it does with what I think of as fine winemaking.  But I think we need to start thinking of truly fine wine as being a niche product that constitutes only a small percentage of overall wine production.   The rest is plonk.

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5 Responses to “Why do most restaurants serve sucky wine?”

  1. Beth says:

    Jeff,

    It’s true, many restaurants serve sucky wine, but it’s not because they aren’t interested in serving better wine. It’s because they believe their customers aren’t interested in spending the money to buy better wine. They say their customers ar emore concerned with price point than with quality.

    I’m a wine industry member who represents a fantastic portfolio with great values. The biggest challenge I have in selling to casual style restaurants is the buyers are looking for wines in the $3-$4 aquisition range for which they charge $5-$6 a glass. Between the profit margin they make and the inexperienced wine drinkers frequenting these establishments, they have no motivation to serve better wines - even at a 2nd tier price point.

  2. Chris says:

    I always say if you can’t visit the place the wine your drinking is produced your not drinking real wine.

    Anyone who is not in the industry would find it difficult to visit wine producers that produce 85% of all wine consumed in the US. And if they did visit those places (home of Yellowtail, Cavit, Cupcake etc.) they would be un-moved and un-inspired. As for restaurants that don’t put any effort into their wine program, they are missing out on many opportunities to improve their business.

  3. Matt says:

    Good point, hadn’t thought about that but makes sense. You see a similar thing with beer distribution in Europe as well. Many small, local town brews finding it difficult to find independent pubs.

  4. Sediment says:

    Surely a significant factor is the relationship between the cost/quality of the food, and that of the wine?

    How much are people going to spend on wine in an average restaurant? Assuming you are drinking the wine as an accompaniment, and not as the main event, you are not going to spend any more than half your food bill on your wine. Mr & Mrs Average are out for a meal, remember, not out in order to drink wine.

    Now, we also know that restaurants mark up their wines by AT LEAST double, if not four times, the retail price. It’s part of their profit structure.

    You see where this is going? If someone is just going out for a plate of pasta and a glass of wine, it is not going to be possible for a restaurant to offer a “good” glass of wine - because it will cost more than the pasta!!

    Either restaurants have to change their pricing structure - wineries have to change THEIR pricing structure - or the average person has to change their attitude towards the relationship of wine and food in a meal.

    The Sediment Blog

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