Ask the Bartender: The Price of Whine

Why the hell is vino so spendy?

Why is wine so expensive in restaurants? We drink wine regularly, and I don't understand why a bottle that costs $20 in the grocery store cost me $48 the other night in a restaurant.—Tom

When you know just how little breakfast costs to make, it's extremely difficult to go out and pay $12 for an omelet and toast for what amounts to less than $3 worth of food. I feel the same way about wine. I think prices are ridiculous, even though practices and pricing structures are fairly universal in Seattle and elsewhere in the country.And yet this sort of pricing is hardly baseless. We don't have to like the $12 omelet, but that's how much a restaurant has to charge to staff the kitchen, buy the food, and keep the lights on and the coffee hot. As a customer, you have to decide if that atmosphere and service is worth the extra $9. If not, stay home and cook your own damn eggs. If you don't like the cost of something, don't order it. And if you applied your outrage to everything about food and drink in restaurants and bars, you wouldn't be eating out.I think people get most riled up about wine prices because they don't see any work involved. A restaurant buys the wine and stores it; when you order it, a server opens the bottle and pours it into a glass. The mental barrier also comes with the markup. A bottle of wine that costs $30 in a store probably costs $21 wholesale. That same bottle in a restaurant would cost somewhere between $50 and $60. Some restaurants take more liberties with pricing, but tripling the wholesale price or doubling the retail price is the standard formula for marking up wines. If you know you bought a bottle of McCrea for $30 and see it on the list for $60, it's perfectly understandable that you get pissy about that extra $30, because that's probably more than your entrée costs.It's the scale that gets us. Buying a half-hour at the bar with a cocktail in hand for an extra $5 doesn't seem so unreasonable. But paying an extra $30 for a bottle of wine? That's half a cable bill, gas for a week, or 10 lattes.Bars make the most money off beer and liquor, not wine. The most popular microbrews you see on tap run about $1 per pint wholesale, but micros on draft in this town commonly cost the customer $5. Similarly, an ounce and a half of Beefeater in your tonic costs exactly a dollar, and the tonic and lime a negligible nickel—but people rarely feel cheated paying $7 for a gin and tonic. This is why bars don't want you to drink wine; they want to sell as many gin and tonics as possible, making money from volume. But at a table for two in a restaurant, one bottle of wine can mean more profit than two rounds of drinks.I'd like to say that restaurants charge too much, but in fact they charge what they need to charge, balanced against what the market will bear. Believe me, the average restaurateur is not getting rich off your bottle of wine. You don't have to like it, but for a restaurant to survive and achieve a three percent profit margin, customers need to drink—and pay handsomely for the privilege.Got a question for the bartender? Send your boozy plea to

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow