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Cracking the Code Of Restaurant Wine Pricing

on 04/09/12 at 9:04 am


Why does the same Cabernet cost $1,500 at San Francisco’s Jardinière and $5,435 at Las Vegas’s Prime Steakhouse? Juliet Chung on how to deconstruct a wine list — and the best way to find good values.

At Legal Sea Foods in Washington, a bottle of 1999 Dom Pérignon Champagne costs $155. At McCormick & Schmick’s, less than half a mile away, the same bottle goes for $250. At Carnevino in Las Vegas, it’s $450, and at Per Se in New York, it’s $595.

Never mind trying to understand oil prices; for complexity, inscrutability and sheer customer frustration, it’s hard to match restaurant wine pricing.

Even within a single chain, the numbers can vary widely. While a diner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Dallas can get a bottle of 2005 Duckhorn Merlot for $96, that same bottle costs $160 at Ruth’s Chris in Pittsburgh.

The fragmented, opaque nature of the wine business muddies the waters. Restaurants often pay different amounts for the same wine, depending on when they buy it, how much they buy and who sells it. There’s also more wine available than ever before, as winemaking around the globe matures and regions like Argentina, Chile and South Africa bring more wines to the table. And because wine prices, particularly at the high end, have risen dramatically in the past decade with new demand from Asian countries, the range in price tags has widened.

To crack the pricing code, The Wall Street Journal interviewed nearly three dozen sommeliers, beverage directors, alcohol distributors and academics. These wine experts helped assemble a strategy for finding the best restaurant deals — or at least not falling for the worst ones.