The Wide Whirl of Wine

Dear Dara explains why you can't always get what you want

Dear Dara;

Saw Wine & Dine--nice. Next time I get two weeks off I'll read it again. But if you're so smart, riddle me this, Kiddo: Why can you never find the same wine from a wine list in the goddamn liquor store?

--Sick of It All in St. Paul

Sean Smuda


Sickie, my duck, it's just madness, isn't it? Imagine if Burger King had one set of sodas, and the 7-11 a different one, and McDonald's yet a third. Blood would run in the streets, I tell you! Or corn syrup would. Something.

Something sticky and marvelous with corn chips from the heater box by the gas station restrooms! And you wouldn't like that, would you? Because in America, we've pretty much codified the whole buying and selling of objects into predictable ways. If you want to buy a soda, a pillowcase, or a cat, you can go someplace where the sodas, pillowcases, or cats will be either in the variety of bad, good, better, or best, and the variables will tend to restrict themselves to under a thousand. You might, say, get a young cat, a yellow cat, a one-legged cat, or a cat that lays down with parakeets. But in no instances will you get a cat whose qualities are hidden behind strong glass and labeled in pidgin hybrid shorthand composed of language and habit from two dozen nations.

Usually, usually you will know even from the outside of the store, or the outset of the situation whether you are getting involved with a good pillowcase, or cat. For instance, bad cats are gotten from men in black satin capes in graveyards, and they will transform during a full moon into something that must invade Iraq. Good cats are gotten from dotty heiresses in limousines who entrust their estates to you so that you might best instruct the butler on what size crystal compote best fits an unmolded can of mackerel.

But I digress.

As I see it, Sickie, there are about five basic reasons that the wines that you fall in love with on wine lists mostly aren't at the store.


1. Restaurant-only allocations

There are wines, mostly from California, that are sold exclusively, only, and ever to restaurants--not to people. There are no reliable figures, but my guess is there are a few hundred restaurant-only allocations these days. It all started when the first group of brand-new, super-prestigious California wineries debuted themselves, and began making wine in small runs. These wineries were mostly the efforts of second-career zillionaires who were in the game for the prestige and fun, and didn't want their few wines to disappear once they made them, they wanted them to be on restaurant wine lists where they could show them to their friends.

Then in came the second wave of restaurant-only allocations, wineries that saw this restaurant-only allocation policy as an extremely focused, efficient way of marketing. I asked Annette Peters, the former import manager for St. Paul's wine powerhouse The Wine Company, about this, and she explained it thusly: Wineries that designate restaurant-only allocations, she says, "feel like the visibility they get on the wine list is extremely important," especially compared to the anonymity of a bottle abandoned on a store shelf. Also, says Peters, "wineries that sell most of their wine in a restaurant develop a higher 'price-image' for their wine."

What's a price-image? It's the thing that makes you think things are supposed to be expensive! This can also be an important way of introducing a new wine brand--for instance, if you see Snookums's SnickerDoodle Estate Pinot Noir during fancy, expense-account dinners at $80 a bottle for a few years, and then one day you walk into a store and see Snookums's Plain Old Pinot Noir for $25 a bottle, you'll likely get really excited and take some home, thinking you scored a great bargain.

Another marketing maneuver is for a winery to put a special label on their plain old wine, and then sell it at a discount to a big restaurant, just to get people to taste it. "Joy Sterling from Iron Horse [a California winery famous for its sparklers] struck a deal with Palomino/Kincaid's, selling a prestigious $200-a-case wine at $160 so that they could sell it by the glass," says Peters. "This was a brilliant move. The promotion and publicity makes it worth it to the winery, because it exposes thousands of people to the wine." It's good for the restaurant, which gets to pour a high-quality wine, and it's good for the consumer, because you get to buy a glass of bubbly for $9 that would ordinarily cost $14.


2. Fake restaurant-only allocations

Of course, the world of good restaurant-only allocations brought in a secondary universe of what I call fake restaurant-only allocations. See, restaurants hate it when you know their $8-a-glass Chardonnay retails for $8 a bottle, and the really big chain restaurants have found a way around this. They'll get a winery to make them a special "restaurant-only" wine for, oh, four bucks a bottle, and sell it for eight bucks a glass or $40 a bottle. And unless you're inside the company you'll never be the wiser. I couldn't get anyone to go on the record with this one, but rest assured, if you're dining in big chain restaurants, it's not just the food that's bad.

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