This past Saturday, the Wall Street Journal had a startling proclamation on its front page, above the fold, above the label: “the fraud of wine by the glass”, it announced. Inside was their weekly wine column, now shared by two authors who alternate each week. The journalist, a New Yorker named Lettie Teague headlined with “why I hate ordering wine by the glass”.
Finally! Someone in an influential media outlet is putting to words an in-your-face dirty little secret of the wine world. I noticed this years ago, and feel exactly the same as the author. Ordering wine by the glass is one of the biggest rip-offs out there, along with extended warranties, and crazy credit card interest rates.
Surveying the New York City scene, Teague reports that most establishments charge for one glass what it costs them to buy the bottle wholesale. Depending upon the volume poured, 4 vs 5 ounces, the remaining glasses sold are all profit. Despite eye-gouging per bottle prices that currently exist in most restaurants, no one dares charge 4-times or 5-times mark ups for whole bottles on their wine lists (except maybe for the priciest, ritziest spots). But they regularly employ such huge mark ups per glass. In my personal experience the worst mark ups are to be found in chain restaurants such as Applebee’s, Chili’s etc, where the wines sold are cheap supermarket-shelf brands. At $ 7-12 per glass, these match not only the wholesale but sometimes retail price of their parent bottles at one glass.
How many times have you been to a restaurant where someone orders a glass of wine thinking that’s all they’ll have. And how many times have you seen them order another, and maybe a third? Do your rip-off alarms go off the hook when you see this? My ex-wife used to do precisely that. My current wife would not dare. We buy the bottle, and sometimes a second, and what we can’t drink, we take home. Mind you, I am not all that frugal or a cheapskate when it comes to money. But wine, which for me is a hobby, is the only area in my financial life where I excercise sensible spending habits.
The WSJ article then goes on to yet other aspects of wine-by-the-glass that amplifies the rip-off factor. It turns out, as you might expect, there is wild variation from bar to bar on exactly what volume is poured, between 4 and 6 ounces. The only consistent trend is that the cheaper restaurants consistently issue smaller pours, the more expensive ones more. There we go with Aplebees again!
Then we have the issue of how do you know that bottle which delivered your pour was freshly opened. The answer is you don’t. More likely than not, the bottle was opened hours ago, and if you were unlucky, yesterday night! Thus you would be paying a premium for already somewhat oxidized, stale wine. The author found a tremendous variety in how fresh the poured wines were in different restaurants. Ironically, the more expensive the glass price, the more likely it is that the bottle sat open for a while before yours was poured out. Makes sense, since the high price reduces frequent demand.
What about those wine delivery devices, in newfangled self-sevice wine pouring machines that use inert gases to supposedly keep the wine “fresh”? You guessed it! Not the same as a fresh pour. Argon, a common gas in such devices, at the very least blunts the nose of the wine.
There was only one restaurant in San Franciso that attempted a tasting theme in its wine program and offered numerous wines by the glass, half & full carafe at prices that matched the bottle price per volume poured. It was in the SOMA region and called Bacar. Unfortunately it went belly-up last year, a victim of the great recession. I suppose there may be others out there charging fair prices for by-the-glass pours. I know none other. They are surely few and far between.
For those tempted to order by the glass and cannot get themselves to buy a whole bottle I have a simple piece of advice: drink beer.