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.