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A wine list that puts customers first

Matching wines to the menu at a fair price

Ever wonder why wine is so expensive in restaurants? Me too. I have my theories but does it really matter? Wine is, and has always been, a profit centre for restaurants and that concept isn't likely to change anytime soon, especially in Whistler.

There is tendency to talk about excellent wine lists but for the most part the talk is confined to selection not pricing. In fact, when is the last time you chose a restaurant just because the wine prices were superior to anything else in town? Continuing along that theme, maybe it is time we re-jigged the modern restaurant wine list or at least how wines get listed.

Restaurant owners and/or chefs would never let anyone design their menus or choose their food suppliers for them but more often than not they will hand over the only part of the restaurant that makes any real money to a large wine distributor, or a multi-national wine giant and say, here you make it work, in exchange for a handful of leather menus or the cost of printing and maintaining menus and wine lists.

Large wineries and/or distributors have a lot of room to manoeuvre in the murky back rooms of wine list selections but that doesn't particularly bother me until I look at the list and can't find a single bottle selling at a price that matches the food, décor and my budget.

Am I the only guy who knows I'm paying way too much for wine in restaurants or have the rest of you just given up? When a winery is getting less than $10 to grow, make, market and ship a bottle of wine to Canada, should I really have to pay $50 to $70 or more to enjoy it with my meal in a restaurant?

Restaurants tend to play the tax card when it comes to pricing but when they prepare a chicken or a fish dish where they actually create something, use resources and add value, the price is almost always moderate, as in, they wouldn't dare add an extra $10 to the entrée because customers would complain. But they take an ordinary $28 Chablis and sell it for $65 and the world is right.

So, before you go listing every wine your customers have never heard of to build a look-what-I have-that-my-competitors-do-not, wine list, stop! And before you decide to pay for your new car lease by tripling the price of my favourite New Zealand pinot noir, stop! And before you put the price of that lamb osso buco down $2 and add $10 to my Cote du Rhone red, stop! And most important of all, stop letting your favourite distributor buy or design your wine list because after all, what, if any, incentive does an agent have to build a balanced, attractive wine list that contains wines that he or she does not sell?

Now to inspire change we propose some wines we could ascribe to be foundation listings that could change the way people think about the food and wine experience in your restaurant, especially if you choose not to more than double the retail price on the wine list. And should you or your staff taste the wine you sell regularly and recommend what on the menu best pairs with it, my guess is the sky is the limit for success.

The point is to get us to come back — regularly. And for readers unable to find any of today's picks at your favourite restaurant you will find them in government wine shops, which means you can drink them at home for half the price.

The Rhone Valley is a go-to region for me when dining out, especially the Côtes du Rhône and its village wines. A current run of excellent vintages from 2007 through 2010 are a gold mine for neighbourhood restaurants wanting to offer pure value. Two solid picks include the Louis Bernard Côtes du Rhône Villages Rouge 2010 ($15), a delicious grenache, syrah, mourvèdre blend or the Guigal Côtes du Rhone 2009 ($22), a syrah, grenache, carignan blend. Either of these reds in or around $30 to $40 on any wine list would have me returning more than once a week to dine.

Sonoma County's La Crema Chardonnay 2010 ($29) should be a chardonnay cornerstone on most small wine lists. The style is ripe, round and elegant with a touch of fat on the palate and tasty nutty, citrus, baked apple and pineapple. It is a crowd pleaser that will fly off the list under $55.

You need a crazy value, go-to red if you are serving pizza or rustic, southern style dishes be they American or European. The wine you want is the Altos Los Hormigas Clasico Malbec 2010 ($16) from Mendoza, a fragrant mix of red and black fruit flavours flecked with smoky dried herbs. This was made for most simple versions of hamburgers, pizza and grilled meats. It would be a steal at $30 on the list.

A top tier Cru Chablis for less than $75 on a wine list would be a treat. A good choice here would be Domaine Cristian Moreau Vaillons 2010 ($40) with its elegant styling and seaweed, mineral, lemon pear flavours that will support a wide range of West Coast seafood.

Few people have trouble listing cabernet sauvignon but a Napa/Mendoza duo would be welcomed most nights by big red lovers. Two wines that could enhance any list are Pascual Toso Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Las Barrancas Vineyards 2009 ($20), a cab that packs fruit, savoury layers and value on top of each other to subdue most any steak; or, from Napa Valley, the Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 ($40), a label that excels well beyond its price and can be considered more Euro in style than some class growth Bordeaux. List the Argentine at $38 and the Napa at $78 and you will be busy.

That's seven easy picks (there are dozens more) that would shine on any list and, by the way, you could serve them all by the glass and really get your customers onside. After all we don't need a big incentive to eat out most nights. All we want is a glass of wine that matches the menu at a fair price.

Anthony Gismondi is a West Vancouver-based freelance wine writer who travels the globe is search of terroir-based wine.