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PAYING BIG BUCKS FOR A BOTTLE

What's the most commonly seen premium wine on Western New York wine lists? Many observers think it's probably Dom Perignon Champagne at anywhere from $150 to $200 a bottle. Or Opus One, the California superwine, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot that sells at the same price point. And sell they do - quite well.

Of course, both bear names even novice wine drinkers are familiar with. Dom Perignon, the prestige bottling by Moet and Chandon, is named after the monk who, legend has it, discovered Champagne in the first place. And Opus One is popular because, as the brainchild of two titans, Robert Mondavi and Baron Phillipe de Rothschild, it's been heavily promoted since its founding in 1979.

Generally speaking, there's no one prestige white wine in this area, maybe because as Bret Blumberg, head of fine wines at Universal Liquor, points out, "white wine drinkers are a lot more price-sensitive than red wine drinkers are."

Or maybe because sometimes even fine white wines don't get the same respect their darker colored brothers do. ("The first duty of a wine," as a jokester once put it, "is to be red.")

It's not even uncommon for a big spender in this area to pay $60 or $70 for a bottle, Blumberg says, although $30 or $35 for a red or $20 to $25 for a white is a lot more usual. The more upscale the restaurant, the higher the prices on the wine list, most of the time.

There is a rule of thumb that stipulates if you multiply the price of an average entree by 1 1/2 , that's generally the price the average diner will pay for wine.

The most they'll pay in Western New York, anyway. Some restaurateurs insist that the $35 wine-buyers are perfectly happy to pay double that in Manhattan where wine lists are usually more expensive as a matter of course.

"If a wine is priced at $200, they'll spend the money in Buffalo," says Terry Bechakas of the Hourglass Restaurant on Kenmore Avenue, noted for its fabulous wine cellar and knowledgeable wine customers. "But if you tell them it's $300, that's a little ridiculous," he says.

Bechakas also thinks that some prices are ridiculous, especially some cult California varieties like Screaming Eagle.

"It goes for $1,000 a bottle wholesale," he marvels.

The restaurateur doesn't even put expensive bottles like that on his list, although he does stock wines that sell for more than $1,000. His patrons ask for his personal advice, he says.

"I don't believe in advertising them. After all, when the restaurant is open, I am on the floor."

Henry Gorino of Oliver's on Delaware does put them on his printed list because he must, in order to retain his prestigious Wine Spectator Magazine Award of Excellence, he says.

"I have first-growth Bordeaux like Mouton Rothschild, Lafite Rothschild and Margaux that sell for over $1,200 a bottle," he says. But do his customers buy them?

Gorino says they most definitely do.

He says that he has at least one customer who orders so much he worries about running out of his supply.

Although he agrees that Western New Yorkers will spend more on wine when they are out of town on vacation, that doesn't necessarily mean they're miserly. In fact, some people use price as an indication of quality, he adds.

"In Buffalo, if you try to guide them to the cheapest wine, they are suspicious. If you try to give them a break at $19 a bottle, they ask, "What's wrong with it?'" Gorino says.

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