Expensive wine: Rayner is right!


Jay Rayner

Now how many times have you said this? “That looks to be a nice pair of shoes/jacket/shirt. How much is it? Really? I can get it for a third of the price down the road. Still, I’ll pay your much higher price.” Never, eh, you wouldn’t be so daft.

Now substitute the phrase ‘bottle of wine’ in that paragraph and read it again. How many times have you paid well over the odds for wine in a restaurant?

It’s a well-worn, familiar topic because we all know restaurants put a big mark up on their wine but Guardian food critic Jay Rayner, the foodie world’s Marco Pierre White, has popped the cork out of the bottle again at the Cheltenham Literature Festival where he was punting his latest book.

He is reported to have said he was irritated by wine snobbery (aren’t we all?) and added: “I refuse to be intimidated by a wine list. (They) are fraught with problems but mostly because of the b——- spouted by wine connoisseurs. They irritate me profoundly.”

He went on: “I do not hold to being intimidated by anything in this life and if a wine list irritates you just buy the cheapest on the list and tell them all to p— off.”

This was interpreted by headline writers as ‘always buy the cheapest wine,’ which is invariably the house wine, and has irritated the great man on Twitter as he didn’t say that but the context is clear. I certainly object to paying well over the odds for wine personally and so did my newspaper’s expense account.

So I felt only reasonable, as it should be to  Mr Rayner, to order the house wine so I could recommend it or not to the readers. I can recall several occasions where I warned them to avoid it in some places. Once I forgot my own advice and went back and ordered it again, a rubbishy Merlot in an Italian restaurant!

I certainly agree that your evening can be enhanced by matching particular wines to foods but unless I am sitting at home am not prepared to expensively indulge this pleasure in restaurants. I would rather spend the money on the food, which should not need the wine to support it.

Rayner is right. There is an awful lot of wine snobbery about and most diners feel intimidated. If restaurants really thought it was vitally important to match wine with food they would offer more half bottles and wines by the glass because it is unlikely one bottle will suit both mains when a couple go out to dine.

That’s why it irritates me when waiters ask if we have chosen the wine before we have decided on our order. We opt for a glass these days, so we can make a decent pairing.

Mark ups of 200 or 300 per cent are common and that is on the retail price you’ll find in supermarkets. Wholesale prices will be cheaper. I accept there should be a premium added to compensate the restaurant for its capital investment in stock. They can have a lot of money tied up.Some places will tell you that the spend on drink subsidises the food.

I think it legitimate to mark up a wine which is reasonably exclusive. I’ve just run my eye down the list of one leading Sheffield leading restaurant which offers a New Zealand white at £60. You won’t find it on many other lists although it is sold in another northern restaurant at £45!

Rayner tells of being ‘treated like dirt’ because he asked a waiter to suggest a cheaper wine. My favourite tale comes from former Sheffield Star restaurant critic Stephen McClarence who fancied a rose but couldn’t find one on the list.

He came back to the office regaling us with his account of how the waiter offered to mix a glass of red and white for him!

FOOTNOTE: You might like to read this post on BYO in local restaurants here http://wp.me/p5wFIX-bb