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A New Approach to the Wine List

Posted by Kerith , August 24, 2009

Nobody likes restaurant wine markups.  It’s hard to enjoy a meal out when the restaurant essentially re-sells you the same bottle of wine that’s in your fridge but at a 200% markup.  Amongst the wine-drinking, foie gras nibbling and amuse buche masticating foodies who power the fine dining machine, that price margin, which ranges from fair to downright greedy, is perhaps the most contentious subject of all.  Up here in No Cal, most local joints are pretty reasonable in the price gauging smackdown.  Many restaurants showcase the local wines and locally farmed produce, so one need only drive a few miles down the curvy road to procure the very same bottle headlining the wine list before you.  Some even waive corkage fees altogether when diners tote their own Sonoma County wines.  Diners here reap the benefits of a symbiotic food-wine “locavore” culture that empowers the patron and drives their restaurant selection.  That is no easy feat in this economy.  And even with waived corkages and mid-week locals’ specials, restaurant dining in Healdsburg has slowed. 

Back home in San Diego, locally owned, non-chain restaurants are failing at an alarmingly high rate.  Even the best loved, San Diego institutions are vulnerable to the market flux.  So when more folks spend Saturday night at home, the brave few still financing dinner on a maxed-out Visa are shouldering the burden of higher wine markups to compensate for plummeting earnings.

Breathe deeply, and allow the maddening frustration of restaurant wine markups to leave your yoga-zen self.  Close your eyes and visualize an inviting, low key, rustic, Italian-inspired restaurant in beautiful downtown San Diego where you can still buy a bottle of wine for $14.  (Yes, it’s true!).  And a well trained staff is on hand to guide your menu selections to match the juice.  What if that restaurant encouraged you to amble through a wine shop where all bottles cost less than $50 and bring your purchase to dinner so you could enjoy your bottle of wine at retail value, without any markup?  And the greatest stroke of genius yet – the wine shop is located right in the restaurant.  After you’ve made your wine selection, the waitstaff escorts you to your table to dine.  Cucina urbana, formerly known as San Diego’s landmark Laurel restaurant, has redefined itself with a new wine/food concept for a new economy.  Cucina urbana will rely on its tasty offerings and exciting, extensive well-priced wine cellar to lure the loft-living, local yuppies from their couches and balcony barbeques.  The atmosphere is relaxed and warm, an ambiance that encourages passers-by to hang out at the wine bar for a while or better yet, upgrade that $17 store-bought bottle of wine with a perfectly crisp pizza with pancetta and fried egg.  Heaven – and no clean up required! 

So who is the brave man who drank though hundreds and hundreds of value-priced wines to seek out the best-priced gems and bring them to the discerning consumers of San Diego?  Who could parlay an old school wine list into something innovative, fun, and fresh, appeasing even the most cash-strapped victims of San Diego’s faltering real estate market?  Who is the hometown hero who brings the joy back into a casual, delicious wine-feast with friends? 

Brigade, I bring you Ben Kephart, the wonderful, knowledgable, and all-around terrific general manager who spearheaded the wine program at Cucina urbana and crafted this thoughtful, well-priced wine list entirely from scratch. 

And lucky for us, he has agreed to a Bruliam interview to divulge the secrets of a well-priced and delicious restaurant wine list. 

Look for his interview next Monday.

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