A Plea for Affordable Wine

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The New York Sun

Everyone has their pet peeves about restaurants. My late father, for example, felt that restaurant tea was too rarely served hot enough. And I, his son, feel that restaurant wine is too rarely priced realistically enough.

It’s not that I object to a wine list featuring trophy bottles costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Let the big spenders go for it, especially if I’m lucky enough to be a guest at their table. But along with the ultra-pricey bottles, a wine list considerate of all diners ought to have a fair sprinkling of reasonably priced selections. My rule of thumb for that category: a single bottle of wine should cost no more than my own three-course meal before tax and tip. That means a $35 bottle with a $35 bistro dinner, and double that for a $70 “gourmet” dinner. That’s the low-end option that should be available, even if I choose instead a more expensive bottle. And, sometimes, I do.

These restaurant wine tab thoughts arose one morning last week after a couple of us parents took our college-bound kids to City Hall, a handsome and lively restaurant on Duane Street that was a welcoming beacon in the dark days downtown after September 11, 2001. Its pared-down, steak-and-seafood and matzo ball soup menu is free of haut airs. But the wine list is another story, as I realized when I looked for a good-value Spanish wine to partner a hangar steak. Five Spanish reds were offered, the lowest priced at $185, the highest at $425. With scads of well-made Spanish reds duking it out at retail for under $15, why must City Hall’s least expensive bottle be priced a dozen times higher? Come on, guys, find a new-wave Toro or Yecla that’s gutsy, not pricey.

Next, I turned to the red Burgundies. Admittedly, this is a pricier category than Spanish reds. Even so, the range of $125 to $625 set the bar unnecessarily high. It’s not hard to find unsung but honorable burgundies from the superb 2002 and 2003 vintages that could be marked up by a fairly standard two-and-a-half times the wholesale cost and still be priced at under $50. I’d also have been happy to drink a wine that every red meat bistro ought to offer: a fruity, well-priced yet honorable Beaujolais. Ideally, it would have been as graceful as the “Chateau des Pethieres 2004” Beaujolais ($28 a bottle) that brightened my lunch that day at Café Ruhlmann in Rockefeller Center. But City Hall’s wine list offered not a single Beaujolais.

In fairness, City Hall is an avowed specialist in American wine, especially cabernet sauvignon from cutting edge producers. I counted 191 cabs on its list. Impressive, for sure. But of that number, only 15 were priced at under $100. You’d never know, scanning this list, of the existence of a bounty of excellent yet modestly priced American cabs (e.g. Cartlidge and Browne) that would love to show their stuff at a restaurant like City Hall.

To the restaurant’s credit, its wine list does propose a smattering of wines like the Ravenswood “Old Vines” Lodi Zinfandel 2003 at $35 and the Lockwood “Monterey” Sauvignon Blanc at $29 that meet my cost-of-onemeal criterion. There just aren’t enough of them. Also to its credit, the high end of the list includes some tender pricing. The superb, hard-to-find, Aubert “Ritchie Vineyard” 2002 Chardonnay, for example, is priced under retail at $110, as is the 2000 vintage of the same wine at $130. Kudos for that, as well as for other upper-stratum, yet well-priced bottles on the list. It’s not the mark-ups, but the lack of opportunity at the modest end of the wine list which galls me.

City Hall’s wine director, Robert Smith, explained in a phone interview yesterday that his list “has been going all-American.” That means phasing out categories like Spanish wines. “The cheaper wines are sold out, and the ones remaining are very pricey,” Mr. Smith said. As for the high prices of cabernet on his list, Mr. Smith notes that American wines have become more expensive. And, as a top-bracket specialist, “I can’t put just anything on my list,” Mr. Smith said. Among his pinot noirs, he noted a particularly good value: Castle Rock’s Pinot Noir at $36.

By comparison to City Hall’s selection, however, check out the wine list at the recently opened Harry’s Café on Hanover Square. It offers plenty of pricey wines, yet has not neglected budget bottles. Several choices of the kind of Spanish wine I’d have been happy to order at City Hall are on Harry’s list, including Almira’s Grenache/Syrah “Los Dos” Old Vines 2004 at $29 and a Castillo Labastida 2002 from Rioja at $30. A good selection of cabernets was available for less than $40. And Harry’s has not neglected to include a terrific Beaujolais: Chateau des Capitans 2004, Julienas, at $27.

My antipathy to pervasively pricey wine lists is based partly on too many years struggling to pay private school bills of my children on a freelancer’s earnings. It’s also based on personal bias: I’d rather tilt my restaurant budget toward superior food, service, and ambiance rather than in the direction of expensive wine. Someone else, after all, put his or her heart into making the wine. The restaurant merely buys it, stores it, and pours it. I can’t re-create a first-class restaurant meal at home — I’ve failed, for example, to get my Portobello mushrooms marinated in balsamic vinegar to taste like City Hall’s — but I can pour the same wine that’s on its wine list at my own table with family and friends.

Too some, this screed against wine lists that disregard the value-minded diner may sound like the complaints of a cheapskate. But never mind me. The truth is that too many New York restaurants, not just City Hall, have forgotten that cost-wise, the wine ought to accompany the meal, and not vice-versa. It’s time to cut the customer some slack in choosing modestly priced wine. And that could mean more wine income to the proprietor, not less. On my evening at City Hall, the place was crowded, but I saw little wine being served. My guess is that if prices were kinder, lots more corks would be pulled.

The New York Sun

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