How To Read A Wine List
December 1, 2011
A wine list, much like a summons and a marriage certificate, is a piece of paper likely to inspire perspiration. How to get away with being cheap without looking cheap? In B.C., restaurateurs are cursed with exorbitantly high wine prices (they aren’t given a price break, unlike their comrades out of province or to the south who pay wholesale prices) and Kafkaesque regulations (you can’t bring unopened wine from home, but you can take opened wine home). In response, most charge a lot for wine, generally starting at two-and-a-half times the retail price. But there are some restaurateurs who eschew conventional practice and offer their customers a break (relatively speaking). One of the best examples is found at our restaurant of the year, La Quercia.
1. The first striking thing about the list is that, save for two bottles, it’s an all-Italian selection, which can make it difficult for the average diner to find a comfort zone. It also bucks the almost universal trend of featuring B.C. wine. Never fear: there is plenty to smile about.
2. Most restaurants apply a higher markup to wine by the glass and very few pay enough attention to ensure that the opened bottles are fresh. La Quercia’s by-the-glass markup is a little high, assuming five glasses to a bottle, but in their favour, Italian reds are exceptionally hearty when it comes to staying fresh after being opened. Keep in mind that most worthwhile establishments will open any bottle on the list if you commit to buying two glasses—just ask.
3. The list starts off promisingly, with barely more than 100 percent markup for a solid prosecco. (It retails for $23; La Quercia lists it for $48.) Cioppino’s sells the same bottle for $71; Market, $75.
4. The first clue that this isn’t just a good wine list but a really great one. This $20 wine is listed at double markup—almost unheard of in Vancouver, especially at a low price point.
5. Lageder is a god among Italian winemakers—you simply cannot go wrong ordering any of his wines—and unlike other Italian bold names, his aren’t crazy expensive. Here the Pinot Bianco is a steal at $47. (It retails for $23.)
6. This may be the best wine deal in Vancouver right now—a mere $25 markup on a $175 wine? That’s astonishingly low (1.14 times retail)—also known as giving it away. Says co-proprietor Lucais Syme: “I did this because it’s my dream to walk into a restaurant and order this great wine at such a great price."
7. Italian reds are daunting for a consumer to order as they almost never mention grape type. Cheat sheet: Nebbiolo makes Barolo and Barbarescos, which are dark and tannic. Sangiovese makes Chiantis and Brunellos, which are more fruity and acidic. Find the grape that you like and zero in on that portion of the list.
8. Many diners opt for the safety of well-known bottles like Chianti Classico, but La Quercia eschews the big names—Ruffino, Frescobaldi, Banfi—in favour of smaller producers. This wine ($79) was given 92 points by Robert Parker, who noted “a beautifully delineated, crystalline finish rounds out this wine that shows the more delicate, Burgundian side of Sangiovese.” Hawksworth also has a good deal on this bottle at $82. Uva (one of the pricier lists in town) at $120 (a three-times mark up) does not.
9. Giovane café + winebar charges $132 for this wine, listed here for $75. Ouch!
10. Tig, as wine nerds call it, is a mainstay of any good wine list. It was one of the first super-Tuscans—Italian wines that use non-traditional grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot—and the 2007 may be its finest vintage ever. At $170 it’s a steal at 1.7 times retail price ($100) considering Bishop’s sells it for $250 and Bacchus $290 for the inferior 2006 vintage. It’s only $180 at Joey, though. “We sell a lot of Tig,” says Syme.
11. Another scoop. Five Sails sells this for $295, La Quercia for $320, but both prices are steals for a wine that retails for $179. A good wine list always decreases the percentage markups as the wine gets more expensive.
12. The other legendary super-Tuscan on this list sells for $270. It’s $388 at Cioppino’s and $450 at Canlis (home to Seattle’s biggest lists).
13. Angelo Gaja is the undisputed king of the modern style of Italian winemaking. Although he’s best known for his Barolos, this fantastic Brunello, at $120, is only marked up double—a considerable sight better than Q4 Al Centro, where it’s priced at $300. Tavola, whose list is neck-and-neck with La Quercia for value, charges only $118 for the lesser 2005 vintage.
14. La Quercia is not flawless. This excellent $150 Brunello, Tuscany’s great wine, is cheaper at Whistler’s RimRock—by $7. It’s $175 at CinCin.
15. Forget for a second that this powerful $200 wine is almost certainly too young to drink and instead think about the fact that La Quercia is charging $275, a 1.375 times markup, when Italian Kitchen is selling the same wine for $500.
16. This 2003 vintage is the oldest wine on the list. With a new restaurant, La Quercia’s owners’ only option was to either outlay a large amount of capital to buy an existing aged cellar or purchase wines that are currently (and readily) available. They chose the latter, which has resulted in lower costs, but no aged trophies for investment bankers.
17. CinCin (which has a much deeper wine list) sells the 2007 for $124—still a good deal; ditto Araxi at $129. Giovane opts for $174. La Quercia, $110—for a $55 bottle of wine.
18. “Dolce from Italy is really expensive,” says Syme, “so this was an opportunity to pass a good deal on to our patrons.” It’s actually a fantastic deal at $50 (double retail). It’s $78 at Hawksworth.