Gouging by the glass... and playing loose with the facts

10 years ago by Tim

Elizabeth Downer and Jack Brice wrote a scathing article about restaurant wine prices in Pittsburgh - but in the interest of responsible journalism there are a number of inaccuracies I want to bring to light.

Since they did not name the restaurants, I'm doing my best to reverse engineer the wines and restaurants they referred to. If they will provide the raw data, I will gladly verify and update this post accordingly.

Two of the examples - Fleur de Cap and Marques de Caceras - are seemingly from Ibiza. The article quotes bottle and glass prices they have listed on their website - but as it turns out those prices are not correct. A quick call to the restaurant confirmed that these wines are in fact priced at $12 per glass (not $26) and $44 per bottle (not $96), just like other wines with the same cost basis. This immediately jumped out to me as a red flag because there are simply not many wines sold over $20 per glass, and it's a price point usually reserved for very premium - and well known - wines.

A third example, J. Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon, quotes the price and SKU of the 375ml half bottle. The 750ml bottle retails for $16.99, not $9.99. While $65 might still be a little on the high side, the target price would be around $53 not $31 as suggested by the article.

I don't know where the price for Kenwood Chardonnay was pulled, but $5.77 is significantly lower than what restaurants pay. While the 2010 SKU is no longer available, it was priced at $9.99 just like the 2011 vintage. The best retail price online is $7.95 and most prices fall in line with the PA prices. Based on data I have, I believe the PLCB itself pays at least $5.45 at wholesale.

Updated: it appears that the 2010 Kenwood was closed out for $5.99 at some point. It's unrealistic to assume that a restaurant offering this on their list bought it at closeout which was available for a limited time and in limited quantities To wit, I saw an invoice yesterday for this wine at $9.19 per bottle.

Likewise, the article claims the Louis Latour Grande Ardeche costs a restaurant $8.66 including tax but the facts suggest otherwise. Based on the quoted bottle price, I'm assuming this is also from the Ibiza list. While it's not clear what the vintage is, the cheapest SKU available is $12.89. Again, I have no idea where they came up with the quoted $8.66 figure. With freight and other fees, a bottle price of $48 would be extremely reasonable.

There are blatant factual issues with more than half of the examples they used - and the problems don't stop there.

Furthermore, it seems a couple of the wines mentioned may actually be referencing the wrong wine.

The article complains about pricing on the 2006 Promesa Rioja Crianza, but it appears the wine being sold is actually the Reserva. The Reserva retails for around $22 and is on a number of Pittsburgh lists for $55-70 including one that sells it for $68. A couple of sommeliers I spoke with said that the Crianza isn't even available, and further investigation confirms this. The 2006 Crianza is an SLO SKU offered only by the Legion Club of Connellsville, which has a Club Liquor (C) license and cannot sell to restaurants. This means that there are, in fact, no Pittsburgh restaurants selling the 2006 Promesa Crianza - at any price.

Similarly, a couple of local restaurants sell the Chateau de Campuget Tradition, but this is more expensive than the the Le Campuget mentioned in the article. The Tradition is a Grenache Blanc/Marsanne/Roussane blend available as an SLO item at $12.39, while Le Campuget is a Grenache Blanc & Viognier blend available on shelves for $6.99. I'm not aware of anyone selling Le Campuget, but the Tradition is priced along the lines claimed in the article so I strongly suspect that these wines may be mixed up as well.

To that end, the article also completely ignores the restaurant's costs particularly as it relates to SLO orders. Several establishments said they offered to disclose their invoices, but the authors apparently declined. After the article was printed, one of the restaurants that sells the Chateau de Campuget Tradition tweeted an SLO invoice for the wine that sheds some light on the total costs involved. As you can see below, the restaurant is charged an additional $3.00 per bottle in freight - something rather common for SLO orders, but not mentioned at all in the article. After factoring in tax, freight and the discount, the restaurant's cost was a little over $14 - a far cry from $6.73 claimed by the article.

The article also assumes that all pours are 5 oz, when in fact the size of pours can vary dramatically. For example, I know of at least one restaurant that sells a 6 oz glass of Kenwood Chardonnay for $9. While this may or may not have been the example used in the article, it also means this glass of wine is 20% larger than a 5 oz pour or 50% larger than a 4 oz pour. A proper price analysis would account for these variations.

As an aside: To answer the question posed in the article, I would also say that it's fairly common to price a glass of wine at the restaurants cost. Values on a wine list rarely come from the by the glass program, and especially not when restaurants are paying close to retail instead of wholesale prices.

It's one thing to voice an opinion about the price of wine in restaurants, but it's an entirely different matter to put forth a price analysis based on skewed and inaccurate facts. I can only hope that the Post-Gazette will issue a correction and give it the same prominence that it gave this article in print and on the web.

Sadly, it seems that this misinformed article may have already had an impact as several restaurants I spoke with reported a noticeable spike in calls asking about corkage fees and policy after the article was printed. In some ways, this adversely affects those who are relatively less knowledgeable about wine and would otherwise stand to gain the most from the collective knowledge of our city's sommeliers. It's also patently unfair to the many restaurants who are building interesting, and reasonably priced, wine programs in an otherwise challenging system.

Beyond that, it's a little disappointing that so many Post-Gazette articles focus on negative aspects instead of the many positive changes in the Pittsburgh wine community over the last few years.

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