Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Wine News

May 19, 2004
Raising a Glass to Affordability

THE Peck's Bad Boy of wine is back, with a new target: restaurant wine lists.

I'm talking about Fred Franzia, who brought us Two-Buck Chuck a couple of years back.

In a stroke of marketing magic, Mr. Franzia, president of the Bronco Wine Company in Ceres, Calif., matched up a lake of surplus wine with the penny-pinching of the downwardly mobile and made himself a bundle. On the backs, it must be said, of outraged wine retailers who watched their high-markup bottles gather dust while customers sloped off to the nearest Trader Joe's, still the only place that sells the stuff.

The great surplus has shriveled away now, and Two-Buck Chuck, officially known as Charles Shaw, has been relegated to the back aisles of many a Trader Joe's. But the $1.99 wine lives on.

Say hello to Lost Vineyards, a new line of wines from Portugal selling for — you guessed it. What's more, when the Lost Vineyards people say $1.99, they mean it. Charles Shaw sold at that price only in California. Elsewhere it was $2.99. Lost Vineyards is $1.99 wherever it is found.

Which, admittedly, is not everywhere. Matt Betters of Brothers International, the importer and distributor in Oakfield, N.Y., said limited quantities can be found in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Long Island and other parts of New York State and in at least one New York City shop, Astor Wines and Spirits. The line includes a red, a white and a slightly effervescent vinho verde. A Lost Vineyards Argentine series will begin to arrive in June, Mr. Betters said.

Wines like Two-Buck Chuck and Lost Vineyards are sold in supermarkets and liquor stores. Restaurants, hung up on image and fearful of low markups, are not interested.

Which brings us back to Fred Franzia and his newest crusade: getting a $10 bottle of wine into America's restaurants. America will never become a wine drinking country, he said, until you can buy a bottle of wine in a restaurant for $10. He has tried to convince many a restaurateur of this, including some major restaurant chains, he said, all to no avail, leading him to conclude that they are all greedy. Mr. Franzia is not a man for nuance. Reminded that in many restaurants bottled water sells briskly at almost $10, he observed: "It just shows you how stupid Americans can get."

He does have a point. Not about the restaurant owners or the American water lovers, but about restaurant wine prices. They are unconscionably high and getting steadily higher. In good restaurants in most major cities, wine lists often start with a bottle or two in the mid-$30's, then quickly move to $50 and more. Lower-priced restaurants sometimes offer wines in the low $20's, but wines in the $15 to $20 range have all but disappeared from restaurant lists. Then is Mr. Franzia's $10 nothing but a fantasy? Probably, but it does not have to be.

Last week, I bought a bottle of wine at an old restaurant on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village. It was a rough, undistinguished Rosso di Montalcino to accompany a couple of plates of linguine with clams. The price: $18. Two days later, I saw the same bottle in a local supermarket for $6. Which means the wholesale cost of the wine was about $3. For the supermarket, a 100 percent markup. For the restaurant, 600 percent.

O.K., in the restaurant I was paying for the (paper) napkin, the use of the silverware and two reasonably clean glasses, and of course, the service ("Hey, who gets the vongole?"). Then, too, I was helping the padrone with his labor costs and his rent. But would it not be reasonable to think I was helping him if I paid only three times what he paid, or around $10?

In some ways, the high cost of wine is a problem we have made for ourselves: we take wine too seriously. We are hung up on vintages, appellations, grape varieties and, in the upper reaches of wine fanaticism, the specific vineyards from which the grapes were gathered. There is a place for all this intensity; serious wine enthusiasts have every right to take their wines seriously. But for everyday drinking it is unnecessary. My personal solution is the carafe, an enthusiasm not shared by my friend Mr. Franzia. Ten dollars for a bottle with a cork, he said, brooking no argument.

At casual restaurants I know in Europe and even here in New York, a carafe of wine, usually half a liter, is the perfect antidote to high wine prices. It is also the right size for two at lunch; less than a bottle but more than half a bottle. Joe Allen on West 46th Street is a carafe restaurant. There are plenty of bottled wines, too, but for me, the carafe is often the way to go. You have to know the place and trust it, but once you do, there are no more questions about names, vintages, or anything else. Half a carafe of the red is all the wine knowledge required. At a decent French place, it is usually a Côtes du Rhône. At Joe Allen it is usually a modest Italian red. One day I would hope that restaurants could buy their wine in bulk. For most casual places, the 18-liter box would be perfect. Wine by the glass or the carafe could be both good and inexpensive.

Better and better wine is being put into the box format even now. It will be a long time before we see it in wide use. But then, the screw cap is slowly gaining respect. Why not the carafe, too? I would put my money on the wider use of carafes rather than on Mr. Franzia's $10 bottle.

Copyright 2004


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