Tom Cannavan's   

Restaurant wine lists - heaven or hell?

by Philippe Boucheron, 08/02

As a writer on both restaurants and wine there is one question that I dread: 'why does a bottle of wine cost three or four times as much in a restaurant as it does off a supermarket shelf?' After all, I am told, in no uncertain terms, cooking takes training and skill, but any idiot can open a bottle of wine!

Well, while that is true as far as it goes, it does tend to ignore the fact that restaurants are not just about food or even wine. The art of a good restaurateur is to create an environment where people can enjoy themselves with, hopefully, good food and fine wine. The restaurateur is both stage director, creating a hedonistic theatre of the senses, and businessman (or woman) providing the premises, purchasing the produce, and paying the staff.

Wine is simply a piece in the overall jigsaw from which the restaurateur makes enough gross profit to cover the often high establishment costs. These include paying the bills of butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers, let alone wine merchants. The restaurant also covers the wages for its chefs and serving staff, to say nothing of rent, rates, taxes and insurance.

  With very few exceptions it is almost impossible to put more than 4 worth of food on to a plate, yet few diners seem to quibble about paying 17 or more for a dish. Why then do they insist on carping about the price of the wine? It could of course be that they can go into Tesco, buy a bottle for 3.99, go home, draw the cork, and with very little effort pour it into their glass. But then they are not enjoying the experience of a good night out in a smart restaurant - and anyway, often the 17 wine they have ordered is worth a great deal more than 3.99 retail.

The real problem with restaurants is that far too often accountants, with no know real knowledge or love of wine, take control of the lists. They start by establishing the price points at which they wish to sell their wines, and then source them at as low a cost as possible in order achieve disproportionate margins. The quality of the wines or their suitability for matching the dishes is seldom, if ever, taken into account.

Accountants are not necessarily rogues or vagabonds. They know that by exercising complete control over the cost and selling price of the wine they are able to make an excessive profit that, they hope, will cover those extra costs so cunningly hidden by the chefs. Sadly, in doing so, accountants get the catering industry a bad name.

The real tragedy of the British restaurant scene is that there is a great shortage of Sommeliers. Such highly professional and suitably qualified wine stewards make it their business to taste as many wines as possible and select those that, with the help of their chef, will successfully match the dishes that come from the kitchens.

Where a restaurant has a sommelier, the wise diner should discuss the wines with him or her, explaining which dishes their party has chosen and seeking professional advice on the best wines to accompany their selection. They could well be surprised not only by the sommelier's suggestions, but also at the price which is frequently less than they had been prepared to pay.

There are however some excellent chef-patrons with a great love of both cooking and wine. These paragons are well worth searching out and supporting because their wine lists often contain some astonishing bargains.

I recently recommended the enterprising "try before you buy concept" at Oxford's Savannah restaurant, and other stalwarts offering the wine-lover a truly good deal include the Peat Inn, a country restaurant in Fife under the steady hand of David Wilson these past 30 years. At Gidleigh Park in Devon, an up-market retreat where Kay and Paul Henderson have carved out a world-wide reputation, you will find one of the best, and fairest-priced wine lists in Britain to accompany their double Michelin-starred cuisine.

The great chef-patrons are something of an endangered species, made more so by predatory accountants whose eye is only on the bottom-line. I recommend we all seek out and support them, and I hope to bring you more recommendations for fine wine dining on these pages over coming months.