Last week’s issue of Vue bore my cover story on the price of wine in Edmonton restaurants. (Read it here.) I chatted with several places around town to get the lowdown on their pricing models.
It basically amounts to what you should already know: restaurants have to pay their bills, and the markup on food isn’t enough to cover everything – so they make up for it on the booze menu. This is just how it works, and that’s fine. My problem, and what I was trying to get across in the article, is not paying more for wine in restaurants – it’s paying more for boring/shitty wine in restaurants. Alberta is absolutely spoiled for choice with the amount and variety of wine we can get here; as the country’s only privatized provincial liquor board, we can – and do – bring in pretty much everything. So why am I seeing the same damn brands of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Malbec and Aussie Shiraz on so many lists, when there are quite literally hundreds of other options?
Ignorance. That’s really the answer – restaurant managers, owners and servers are usually pretty lacking in wine education. They may have an okay working knowledge of the basics: they know Malbec is Argentina’s signature grape and it’s mass-appealing. But they don’t really know much more than those few talking points, which are doled out by the wine agents that do their monthly staff tasting. (Now, I know there are several restaurants in town that are very knowledgeable about wine; I’m generalizing here.) It’s even worse when they don’t realize how much they don’t know, and speak about wine with authoritative, infuriating arrogance.
That arrogance is another major factor contributing to our city’s mediocre wine lists. Regardless of how much a restaurant’s staff knows about wine, I think the common assumption is that the customer knows far less – so they’ll be happy with whatever’s on the menu, right? After all, they put that Wolf Blass Yellow Label on the menu and it sells like crazy, so there’s no problem right? (Side note: nothing sets my teeth on edge faster than, after I ask a server for a wine recommendation, he/she says, “This one is really popular.”) But it’s time they realized many of their customers are quite knowledgeable about wine – and it’s time for we knowledgeable customers to start making them realize this and taking them to task on the subject. Don’t be okay with crappy, boring wine, and don’t stay silent about it either.
Now, the issue is admittedly a lot deeper than lazy/arrogant restaurant staff – most of those staff members don’t get paid a living wage and are therefore forced to depend on tips to earn a living. When you force your staff to work for tips, the customer-server relationship fundamentally changes – and not necessarily for the better. It also means that for most, serving is a stopover job for people while they’re in school, or a fallback for when they can’t find a “real” job. This fosters an industry with a huge turnover rate and employees with little motivation to go out of their way to learn more about wine and food – especially when the wine list they’re pouring isn’t very good anyway.
So, the price of wine in Edmonton is a complex issue, and I can understand the competing interests. To their credit, most of the independent restaurants do their best in trying to craft interesting, well-priced wine lists. It’s usually the chains that have the really predictable, cookie-cutter, overpriced wine lists (though there are some lazy indies too.) But I also think that Edmonton, as a whole, has a lot of catching up to do in terms of the quality of our wine and food culture. We’re way behind Vancouver and Toronto, light years away from New York.
If the wine is interesting, difficult to find and a wise choice for food pairing, I have no problem paying three times the retail price – because I probably don’t even know what that retail price is, because it’s not found in every corner liquor store in the city. But when you list J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cab at $63 a bottle (I’m looking at you, Murrieta’s – that’s what started this entire story), I know damn well what your markup is – and that, I think, is when the customers start getting really irritated. (I sure did.) If the wine is common as mud, we don’t want to pay triple for it. Give us something nifty and high-quality, and we’ll shell out the same amount of cash – but we’ll walk away much happier, and we’ll come back. With our friends.
Think about it.