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When is the Wine List Fairly Priced?

I’ve developed a theory that helps me decide if a wine list is fairly priced: The bottom of the list should have a good selection at the price of the average meal.

I don’t much care about the top of the list. If a pizzeria wants to serve $1,000 wines, that’s fine with me. The top can go as high as the restaurant thinks it can get away with. But if the average meal is a $15 pizza and a $5 scoop of ice cream, then the cheapest wine shouldn’t be $60.

At Corton in TriBeCa, the cheapest meal is $76 prix fixe, but the wine list has two full pages of bottles under $50, and even quite a few under $40. You can also spend thousands, but the ample selection below $50 makes Corton’s wine list not just fairly priced, but generously priced.

The other night, we had dinner at Belcourt in the East Village. We loved Belcourt overall, but I found the high-priced wine list irritating.

Obviously a casual neighborhood bistro isn’t going to have the same wine list as Corton, but the wines Belcourt did have were nearly all above $50. There might have been a token red or two slightly below that figure; as I recall, they were very young wines that I wouldn’t drink even at retail prices, much less with a restaurant markup. At Belcourt, the average appetizer is around $10, and the average entrée is about $21. It should have a half-dozen to a dozen real choices below $50.

So that’s the rule I use: the heart of the bottom end of the wine list should equal the price of a typical meal for one. That means there should be real choice at that level, not just a token, and not an obscure grape or region that is out of character for the restaurant.

The upshot is that a party of 2 can have a decent meal where the food is 2/3rds of the cost, and the wine is 1/3rd. That seems fair to me.

Reader Comments (3)

not sure I agree.. 'fairly priced', to me, depends on the mark-up from the wine's whole-sale price. my rule of thumb is twice retail = fairly priced, at least in new York.

December 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJ

I was referring to price range rather than markup. I agree that 2× retail is fair, in a way. But another measure is whether the amount the restaurant forces you to spend on wine is commensurate with the food bill. I mean, that $250 bottle might be a steal, but you still need to spend $250 to get it.

December 26, 2008 | Registered CommenterMarc Shepherd

The industry rule of thumb is 2.8X wholesale cost. At the low end it is as high as 4X.

December 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterADS

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