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Wait, the Cheapest Bottle on a Wine List Costs How Much Now?

May 09, 2024

Story: Eliza Dumais

art: Lille Allen


Wait, the Cheapest Bottle on a Wine List Costs How Much Now?

May 09, 2024

Story: Eliza Dumais

art: Lille Allen

Less than a decade ago, it was routine to find great wines under $40 at top New York City restaurants. What happens when even entry-level wines feel like luxury items?

When in doubt, wine list holy law states that thou shalt pick the second-cheapest wine. Since the days of yore, the “second-cheapest wine” doctrine has provided many an overwhelmed patron with great solace. Largely unspoken, the dictum underscores that no, you are not stingy, and yes, you are discerning... regardless of what you can or cannot glean from the pamphlet of unpronounceable regions and grape varieties in front of you. But what happens when all of the bottom-tier wines on restaurant lists become so high in price, they’re all but inaccessible to the casual drinker? What’s our holy law, then?

It’s no secret that New York wine prices have surged over the course of the last decade—swelling up ever higher in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lists that included solid $45 bottles not five years ago now regularly price their least costly wines in the $80 range. And, to be clear: We’re not referencing the kinds of dress code–mandatory, wall-to-wall carpeted dining rooms designed to hemorrhage money from tech lords with trust funds. We’re talking about local spots with steady regulars, where folks can order hot dogs with their Chablis.

“We all know that we’re seeing high-end auction prices go up. We’re seeing six-figure bottles on wine lists with prices that continue to rise. But the real story worth pursuing is about the bottom tier of the menu,” says Patrick Cournot, managing partner and beverage director at East Village wine bar Ruffian. “If we keep tacking $10 increases onto our least-expensive bottles, they start to feel more and more like luxury items rather than day-to-day pleasures.”

Prices seem to be shooting up at a rate that supersedes the normal ‘price of milk’ inflation scale. And it’s changing the way guests drink.

Per our research back in 2016, the second-cheapest bottle on the list at Roberta’s in Bushwick, Brooklyn, was $39 (Koehler-Ruprecht Weissburgunder Kabinett Trocken 2013); now it’s $64 (multiple options). At Manhattan’s Estela, it was $48 (Leonardo Bussoletti Brecciaro Ciliegiolo di Narni 2013), and now it’s $65 (various options). At Pasquale Jones, also in Manhattan, it was $55 (Guido Marsella Fiano di Avellino 2012), while at present, we’re looking at $65 (multiple options). 

More broadly, three out of the 10 New York restaurants polled in 2016 priced their second-cheapest bottle in the $30 range, while only one clocked in at $60 or higher. Right now, you’ll find just one bottle under $80 at Le Coucou. At Le Rock, bottles start at $75, and at Libertine, they start at $70. Frankly, if you encounter a list at a buzzy restaurant with anything priced in the $40 range, you’ll need to blink just to be sure you haven’t missed an extra zero. Long story long, these prices seem to be shooting up at a rate that supersedes the normal “price of milk” inflation scale. And it’s changing the way guests drink. 

The Math Behind That Bottle Price

“Ten years ago, we definitely had a lot more bottles available in the $40 price range,” says Justin Chearno, wine director at Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s beloved Four Horsemen. “Not only is the wine getting more expensive at cost, but so is everything else: groceries, labor, glassware, staff. The margins just don’t make sense if we don’t keep scaling up, accordingly.”

Naturally, there are markups at each stage of the sales process: prices set by producers, transportation costs (both overseas and cross-country), storage fees, distributor rates and then restaurant markups. “In a system where these numbers touch so many different parties, it can honestly be hard to tell where the biggest surges in price are even coming from,” says Annie Shi, wine buyer and partner at Jupiter and King

For importers and distributors, astronomical increases can arise from the most menial price shifts. “Sure, in 2020, we were dealing with inflation. But we were also seeing the price tag on label-printing go up,” says Brett Taylor, who helms importing company D-I Wine. “We were looking at glass shortages during bottling processes. Corks got more expensive. French oak was hard to find. Winemakers had to up their prices just to get their stuff out the door,” he explains.

If we throw a $30 bottle on the menu, our servers don’t get tipped out well, and we’re barely fronting the costs of reprinting the wine lists.

In order to combat inflation, climate change, competition and even pressure from importers, those prices still keep going up. “Almost every producer has raised their prices anywhere from one to three euros over the past two years,” says Alexander Gable, of Italian-centric importing company Natty Wine. “Our market demands a specific price point for wine that’s no longer realistic for small producers or importers.” And again, that’s all before we get to the restaurant markup—the likes of which have increased as well. 

These days, a restaurant markup anywhere between three and four times a wine’s at-cost price (what the distributor charges) is fairly standard. And while restaurateurs and wine buyers aren’t exactly thrilled by that metric, it’s become commonplace across New York establishments, which are paying increasing minimum wage, food costs, rent prices, even employee benefits. “The truth is, if we throw a $30 bottle on the menu, our servers don’t get tipped out well, and we’re barely fronting the costs of reprinting the wine lists,” says Chase Sinzer, operating partner behind a popular East Village spot, Claud, and its new companion bar, Penny, “even if we want our guests to have that experience.”

At the same time, we’re also seeing increased demand for a select group of wines. In turn, winemakers and distributors are “allocating” their bottles—which is to say, designating certain quantities for the venues of their choosing. “All these new bars and restaurants are opening by the minute—and it seems like everyone wants the same shit,” says Chearno. “We’re certainly seeing more allocated wine than ever before—and, of course, you never want to miss out on an allocation when it’s being offered to you... even if the price feels a little wild.”

As you can see, it’s hard to point fingers here. But here’s the thing: If we intend to find ways to embed wine more wholly into the foundation of American culture—without isolating the stuff as a Special Occasion decadence—the economics of drinking wine in a restaurant are hardly furthering the cause.

A Pivot to Negronis?

“I’m always a little scared to open a wine list. These days, it’s entirely possible that the cheapest bottle is $80... and you don’t wanna be the guy who picks the cheapest bottle,” says Johnny Pauker, a New York native and freelance production coordinator. “It’s enough to make you pivot to Negronis. At the very least, you’ll drink through them slower.”

Pauker is not alone in that sentiment. Add the rising cost of a bottle of wine to glass pours that often begin at $20 and it’s not hard to understand why folks who aren’t already card-carrying Wine People attribute greater perceived value to cocktails. The artful labor of drink-making transpires right in front of you, alcohol content is typically higher and, frankly, it’s far easier to intuit whether or not you’ll enjoy your drink without doing extensive field research.

Folks are looking for a way in, and instead, we’re giving them a way out.

“Have you ever seen a trend grow as quickly as the Espresso Martini? It’s wild,” notes Theo Lieberman, beverage director at Pasquale Jones along with the rest of Delicious Hospitality Group’s restaurants. “Five years ago, I’d never seen anybody drinking an Espresso Martini, and now it’s like, If you’re not drinking one, are you even in a restaurant? And truthfully, I think the cocktail has done an unbelievable amount to pull people away from wine.”

Sure, the virality of the sceney ’tini itself may shoulder some blame—but it’s equally possible that steepening wine prices had already done their work to box folks out. “It’s not that I don’t want to drink wine at dinner,” adds Pauker. “It’s just that, when it’s so expensive, your selection feels so high-stakes... and you have to agree on price and bottle with everyone you’re dining with. Stressful stuff.”

It’s worth mentioning that this is occurring at a unique juncture for the wine world. Natural wine, in particular, has served as the preferred gateway drug for many newer, younger consumers. We’re experiencing a renaissance in wine media; we’ve seen the dawn of the TikTok sommelier. And yet, while we work to usher in a fresh generation of drinkers, the economics of wine—and, in turn, the New York hospitality scene—are heralding the opposite effect. Folks are looking for a way in, and instead, we’re giving them a way out.

A New Kind of Holy Law

“The thing is, prices can’t just go up like this forever and ever and ever,” says Shi. “Over the past four years, they’ve skyrocketed for plenty of pandemic-related reasons... but those costs will level out. Sure, you had a bad vintage... but when you have a good one, will the prices drop back down?” 

Ideally, the answer is yes. Plenty of sommeliers and otherwise operators feel that costs need to come down at every stage of the price-setting process in order for the front-end numbers to level out. “Should winemakers be thinking even more seriously about bringing costs down? Yes. Should importers be doing the same? Yes. Should restaurants be lowering their markups? Yes,” says Kenneth Crum, sommelier at buzzy Roman restaurant Roscioli NYC. “It’s going to be a collective effort on all fronts if we’re going to see any real change.”

A number of folks out there are already taking great pains to keep wine in the public commons. On the restaurant side, Bed-Stuy’s Frog, for example, implements a two-and-a-half times markup on most bottles to keep the bar accessible within its ZIP code—which means that yes, you can drink Chablis around a pool table. While wine prices seemed stiff at Cosme in 2016, the second-cheapest wine has only moved from $60 to $65 (consistency is commendable). Other restaurants, like Lodi and Kafana, still keep bottles around $40 on the menu—even in this economy. The point is, no one wants to swindle you out of your money here (or at least, almost no one). Bartenders want you to drink well-made drinks; importers want to introduce you to special wines; winemakers simply want you to sit down and taste the fruits (literally) of their labor.

As for the question of wine list holy law, then: Perhaps it’s time we reconsidered. If the “second-cheapest wine” directive no longer serves us, there’s a case to be made for redirecting our loyalties to the venues themselves. There’s something to be said for simply going back to the places that take good care of us—again, and again, and again. Spots equipped with teams who will dig up interesting wines that offer value, even as prices continue to increase—along with wine discourse that compounds that value. 

“I want people to walk in here and try things—even by the glass—that they’ll remember for a long time. That’s the first thing I think about when I’m building out a wine list,” says Chearno. “I want it to be accessible, but I need it to be special.”

In the end, these are the folks hell-bent on proving that wine is not, after all, a luxury product—it’s just one more poetic fixture of a good tabletop. And if that doesn’t count as holy law, what does?

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