this began as a response to a local writer asking my opinion on it for an article but it never got used.
Mark-ups are always going to be a touchy subject with consumers, certainly, but here’s how I see it. The consumer isn’t simply paying for the wine but they’re also paying for an aura of work that surrounds it.
Most tangibly, the glassware involved is crucial. I understand that people are paying for wine and I want that wine to perform as well as it can for the customer’s sake (read: enjoyment), the vineyard’s sake (read: credibility) and for my sake (read: trust). Improper glassware runs the risk of muting aromas, flavors, and potential evolution in the glass so I want customers to have as ideal a glass as I can afford to offer while breaking as many as possible. Which is another point. While, certainly, one could easily -and cheaply- pick up cases of nearly indestructible Libby goblets that would give a chatan a tough time under the chuppah I think these glasses are disrespectful to the customer and the wine. So I spend a little more on more fragile glasses so the wine has a chance to shine and the customer’s pleasure is heightened. And during service, washing, or hand-polishing the glasses tend to break from time to time (not to mention the occasional destructive customer involvement) so glasses are a frequent purchase. And, as a tumbling aside, the purchase of racks to wash glasses, the water and gas to heat the water to wash the glasses, and the time involved in hand-polishing are all components. Most customers have thrown a party at some point and know the work involved in getting ready for it as well as cleaning up from it.
We also have to contend with waste. Rarely does every bottle get exhausted and it’s just part of the game when I’m faced with finding the goldfish in the bowl. So I’ve got to throw away unpalatable wine. If it’s just a day off, that is to say, if it’s still palatable but not the same wine as the day before (and therefore not what a returning customer would expect upon ordering it) then the wine either goes to cooking or to my drinking it. Either way, no money is coming in for that wine.
But the work, the real work comes from building the wine list. The way I do it, at least, I feel helps to justify my mark-ups. Building a wine list shouldn’t be easy. The list is my baby and it requires the work of raising something potentially destructive like a baby. I meet with wine reps almost daily (which takes up time and glassware, too) and analytically taste with them. Each wine on my by-the-glass must do a lot but in particular, they have to help communicate our philosophy of balance and enjoyment. They mustn’t allow the customer to choose unwisely where food pairing is concerned. So everything on the list shouldn’t pair poorly with anything else. Also, I’ve taken a break from many traditional wine list decisions but I do still try to offer wines that satisfy a desire for light-bodied, medium-bodied, or full-bodied or dry or off-dry. And in this decision-making process I consider our food and, though some customers may, for instance, come in wanting a big, tannic cabernet I know that the food will not play well with a wine-bully like that. So in that case I need to find full-bodied reds that balance fruit, acid, alcohol, and tannin well while not only offering lasting power once opened (to offset the waste issue earlier stated) but also doesn’t change too much once opened. I love that wines evolve once Lady Oxygen gets involved but if it tastes completely different the next day (even if its flavors and aromas have blossomed beautifully) it’s not the same wine as when it was opened. If a customer enjoys a glass of wine that’s been opened for two days and is drinking great then decides to buy a bottle of the same wine to go with dinner then I want that bottle to taste as close to that glass as possible. This is not an easy task to find these wines.
And can I mention how tasting wines all day may sound like fun but falls solidly in the realm of work? It would be fun if every distributor carried nothing but wines I like but such is not the case. When it’s a rep I know well showing wine then they’ll usually arrive with product I’m likely to enjoy but many times somebody representing a winery will have a long line up to try and, sometimes, by the end of it I feel like wringing the residual wine out of my tongue. Add to that the stress I put on myself for trying to be diplomatic and polite so as not to challenge any relationships involved.
My list is also what I would like to think of as educational. I want to offer interesting wines that most customers don’t have the opportunity to try. So I ignore the big names and dig deep into distributor’s portfolios to find the neglected gems. Many times these aren’t available for reps to sample out so I must purchase them just to try them with many of them not having been worth the effort. This expense gets rolled into mark-ups in general. And, because of the uniqueness of my list the staff training requires that they try the wines to make them more informed for the customer; another expense. Fortunately, given how many of the items on my list aren’t available locally then we don’t have as much of a problem of customers complaining about being able to buy it for less elsewhere.
Customers at Baan Sawan also have the option of trying a by-the-glass list item before they commit to a glass. So at a given table one might see three tasting glasses, often two they’re curious about and one we’ve thrown in that we think they’d enjoy. This expense gets rolled into mark-ups in general. But the service is designed to maximize customer enjoyment. If somebody says they like pinot noir and sees that we don’t have one on the menu I want them to be able to try the gamay instead. And if they don’t like the gamay since they’re used to big California pinots then we take their notes on what they didn’t like about the gamay and apply it towards another taste of something that might be more appealing to them. We want the customer experience to be as enjoyable as we can make it and we don’t want them forcing down a glass of wine that they don’t like.
And then there are things like the time and energy writing and formatting the list, the paper expense, the ink expense, the printer purchasing since we print a new menu at least once a week blah blah blah.
And I’m sure I’m forgetting some things.
But here’s the point. For Baan Sawan, at least, each glass of wine that a customer drinks represents a good deal of time and effort to get it there in the first place. But we take our wine list seriously. We take wine seriously and food and how they interact. (These are all also reasons why we’re so cautious about people bringing in their own wine. We lose the control over the experience and we’ve seen people ruin our food with something like a grocery store bottle of big ol’ honkin’ Dynamite cab. They’re only hurting themselves.)
So for us we wouldn’t have the wine list that we do without there being a mark-up. And, frankly, I’m yelled at in almost every board meeting for not charging more than I do considering what I spend. So… I’m going to treat myself to a glass of four day old wine that’s still good but not what it tasted like out of the bottle.