Why most restaurant wine is rubbish

Discussion in 'UK Wine Forum' started by Tom Cannavan, Nov 9, 2018.

  1. Tom Cannavan

    Tom Cannavan Administrator

    Some of you may recognise the thread title: I posted a long diatribe on restaurant wine a couple of years ago after a string of disappointing experiences. I saved the text and expanded it into an article, which I promptly forgot to publish. By chance I rediscovered it in my ‘drafts’ folder yesterday, so published it today. There’s a fairly predictable set of contrasting opinions in Social Media, supporting and disagreeing, but I stand by my comments:

    Why most restaurant wine is rubbish | wine-pages
    Jonathan Hesford likes this.
  2. Light blue touch paper & stand well back..........
  3. Yes, very much so Tom.

    I had an interesting dinner and conversation with a wine importer from Malaysia last week where the whole 'food and beverage' margin was discussed for hotel chains in Asia (and everywhere else). All about margin and very dusty old thinking even to the point where producing more cash and turnover frowned upon for going against the status quo.

    It's very noticeable in BKK as it's now possible to drink really, really well and at fair prices in many restaurants so the places adding 3.5 x on top of the high start point just stick out as insane. At the same dinner was a NZ winemaker who couldn't believe these hotels were charging 60GBP for his Sauvignon Blanc.
  4. I saw your article this a.m., Tom, and sadly agreed 100%. I think another aspect leading to predictably dreary wine lists is that some organisations (I'm assuming chains though I don't know for sure) actually put out their wine lists to tender - the winner gets to supply all the wines. That must put a crimp on doing anything adventurous.
    Alex Jagger likes this.
  5. I almost spat out my Chilean Merlot when I read your article Tom...

    The local Herefordshire issue is that there are really only a f suppliers. At least when a local restaurant has a wine list made by tanners I know there will be some go to wines, rather than whatever is being flogged cheap that week.
  6. It's not only restaurants; the wine lists in both our local golf club and sailing club are poor. In both cases they plead that they are tied to the local brewer and his wine list. Not only that the stuff on offer is not even well priced (except perhaps for the Treasurer). I despair.
  7. I think there is a lot of truth in what you've written Tom. But I think you may have been a little unfair on the restaurants and have not laid sufficient blame other doors - both the wine supplier and the restaurants customers.

    Most people get into running a restaurant because they cook, they like food and that is their thing. They like wine too - but it's not their thing - and they don't know huge amounts about it - but they know they ought to have some - and genuinely I think they want it to be good and offer value - WHILE recognising that they can make a good degree of profitability from it.

    So when it comes to wine what they will do is put themselves in the hands of the wine sales people - I can recognise a Matthew Clarke, Liberty or Bibendum list when I go to a restaurant - but I can equally detect a list from my local Independent Wine Supplier. And here is the issue - the wine sales people DO NOT CARE TOO OFTEN what the quality of the wine on the list is - what they care about is being able to hold down as many listings as possible, and move as much volume as they can - so that they get their commission. So what they will try to sell are not the best wines, or the most interesting things - but try to get the things that they know someone will walk into a restaurant and order, the Rioja, Kiwi Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio. So because that is what is easy they do not try and do better. It should also be said that in my experience the quality of sales people in retail and on trade wine trade are completely different. While people in shops get good training, get paid little but know a lot, conversely a lot of the on trade sales people know little, don't really care much about wine and get (IMHO) overpaid. So with service like that what chance does the restaurant manager have. We have to remember too that it is these companies that decide to create these labels - so they can bulk buy the same old rubbish - stick 8 labels on them and flood the market rather than finding a producer who they work with just for on trade sales.

    At the same time customers seem to want to spend the same on a bottle of wine in a restuant as they would at home. I have very often been out with people who will buy a wine for £12 somewhere but wouldn't 'stretch' to £18 even though that £18 wine is probably the quality they would buy at home. So if customers won't spend the money, and suppliers cannot be bothered what hope for a restauranteur? If they care they will put themselves into the hands of an Independent - but if I am honest one of the big Indies around here (not one I have worked for or have any connection to) has wines that are every bit as bad and often worse than many of the big boys - but the nature of the business is that they also cost the restaurant more money. What the restaurant gets for that money is a mildly luke warm feeling that because they are using an independent specialist they 'must' be getting better wine (when they aren't)
  8. Tom Cannavan

    Tom Cannavan Administrator


    It did cross my mind that it might come across as if it is all greedy restaurateurs fault, which I certainly know it is not. There's fierce competition among the big mainstream wine suppliers too, and it's often they who promise a restaurateur than they can deliver bigger profit margins while supplying 'the same quality' of wine as their current supplier, almost invariably a lie!
  9. I agree that if you look at the U.K. as a whole, wine in restaurants is often crap.
    Mostly crap in fact.

    Profit and the nature of the big suppliers of restaurants doesn’t help.

    But I would argue there are exceptions.

    1. I’d suggest the situation has improved.

    2. There are pockets of excellence for wine. Oddly, it is occasionally the case that a restaurant is better for wine than food. London is well endowed with these, but also with places where both come together nicely.

    3. I know restaurants which are supplied by local independent wine merchants, not always exclusively, where the wine offering is exciting.

    3. The wine bar hybrid, which I suppose would not pretend to be a restaurant, is often a better bet for wine lovers to dine at.

    I know I am lucky on two counts. Like all my best friends, when I dine out I do so almost exclusively at places where the wine is good.

    Saying that, at least 50% of my meals out involve BYO. Not everywhere does it, but a surprisingly large number do, whatever type of deal they cut for it.
    Thom Blach and Kevin Courtney like this.
  10. French restaurants rely on wine to beef up their profit margins, which explains multiplying the *retail* price by up to three or four times.

    Do restaurateurs elsewhere make the same calculation.

    Best regards,
    Alex R.
  11. Agree with your piece Tom; and nicely written.
    It was a pleasant surprise not too long ago to walk into a small restaurant, look at the list expecting the usual dross but only to think: This is good. I recognise these wines. Mr Bercovici of this parish! Well done James.
    Tom Cannavan likes this.
  12. Tom Cannavan

    Tom Cannavan Administrator


    Absolutely. 65/70% gross profit on wine is absolutely standard, so 3x approximately.
  13. Hi Tom,

    Can you explain the calculation because I’m clearly missing something and this is a subject that genuinely intrigued me!

    I would have thought >300% profit was the number. Are you including overheads etc?
  14. Tom Cannavan

    Tom Cannavan Administrator


    Put simply, if a restaurant lists a wine at £10, they will have paid £3 for it to give them 70% gross profit. Out of that has to come all of their overheads. Hence, making any less than 65/70% gross is just not viable - once overheads are deducted there just wouldn't be enough left.
  15. Good piece Tom. I can recall popping into an Italian restaurant in London and checking out the wine list. I asked the chap on the door what was the label of the wine listed as Marlborough sav blanc, he said he didn't know, and "no-one cares". So I asked about the" Italian Chianti" and a couple of others. He didn't know any of the brands, said "It didn't really matter to people". Needless to say I didn't eat there. I have also found in the UK it isn't a great strategy just to go for the dearest wine, as often it is total rubbish.

    As someone mentioned above, one sad conclusion is that probably the general public really don't care. They certainly don't vote with their feet, and probably don't complain.

    In NZ we have horribly boring lists dominated by two or three big companies, but at least the wines aren't totally undrinkable. Top end hotels seem to be some of the worse. They often have a totally cavalier attitude towards their wine list, with a massive profit margin. Another thing I have noticed is reasonably good restaurants with good lists selling premium wines that are far too young to be enjoyable in any way. And unless you ask you often don't know the vintage.
    Tom Cannavan likes this.
  16. Just done it the other way around rather than a multiple of base price. Similar thing. 3 times price would be 200% profit or about 65-70% of the total price paid as profit.
    But yes markup is normally 3 times retail price.

    Can make it tough if your looking at the more expensive wines and many places just don’t have the aged stock. Now funny enough I do know a company trying to meet that demand and it’s a good thing.
  17. Thanks both.

    I regularly see wine for x4 markup for wines like GPL and similar... £70 up to £250-300. It’s difficult to justify. I assume they have to cover corked bottles, breakages, storage facilities and the such.

    I was very interested to see the Pall Mall prices which seem very fair indeed. Obvious flip side is the joining and annual fee of course!
  18. I think the number of people who can afford Pall Mall is very limited. Despite the fact that a lot of people here are members, I’d suggest it isn’t for “ordinary people”. But it is a wonderful place for wine lovers, for sure, and I’m always very grateful to go as a guest.
  19. Yep, most of the time it's shite. I wonder if I am the only one who rarely eats out in England because of this? For me, already highish prices + crap wine at x 3 markup = poor QPR (i.e. better to spend my cash eating out when abroad, where, for one reason or other, gross margin tends in my experience to be around 30-50%).
  20. I personally think 67 Pall Mall poor value. It’s supposedly a members club which should be for its members. Some of its pricing is extremely punchy, and the service is often poor and the sourcing of older wines very dubious.

    Getting back to the thread I simply don’t understand a standard markup across the board for wine. Storage costs, service costs et al are the same for each bottle so why not simply markup by a standard amount to cover that. This would encourage people to trade up to better wines and the higher you went the better value they would be.

    Am ideal maybe but there are a few places that do it.
  21. Tom Cannavan

    Tom Cannavan Administrator

    Cash margins would be a dream. £15 to £25 max on every wine. So make your money on people only willing to spend £18 or £20 and happy to drink a £3 or £5 wine, and we can drink a £75 burgundy for £100.
  22. I think I hold quite a different view to many here. I agree that most restaurant lists are dreadfully poor at worst and boring at best but I hold the consumer responsible. Most customers in restaurants likely buy their wine from supermarkets and therefore most wine lists are merely an extension of a supermarket range at silly prices. The proprietors are simply giving the customer what they want and making good money in the process.
  23. I was a bit surprised by the cellar temperature at 67 Pall Mall, I must say.
    I think it's easy to be too negative, at a good restaurant there is always something nice to drink, I find, even if it's just a GM champagne, and unless there's something unmissable I take the chance to get out of my burgundy comfort zone. I am not outraged that wine costs more in a restaurant than in a shop; so does the coffee and so do the mutton chops. And frankly if the food is good I'm really not that bothered by the wine, to be utterly heretical.
    Graeme Broom likes this.
  24. A few Usual suspects wanting their over-hyped wines for a dime... I see... and I agree of course
  25. A good point. A few years ago a friend who owned a hotel put on a monthly Sunday lunch club, the idea being to provide something above their norm. I helped him with the wine list, trying to add a few more interesting choices. However after a few months it became pretty obvious that most of the punters wanted Pinot Grigio, Chablis, Rioja and Chateauneuf.
    Alex Lake likes this.

Share This Page