Last week, the Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition ran an article titled "Cracking the Code of Restaurant Wine Pricing," which sought to divulge the reasons behind the staggeringly disparate prices of identical bottles of wine in different restaurants across America. (The article is available by clicking here, but a paid subscription to the WSJ may be required). The variable cost per bottle was attributed to multiple factors including non-uniform state alcohol tax laws, whether restaurants bought wine as futures, at wholesale, or through second or third party merchants, restaurant volume, and a restaurant's reputation as a "fine dining" (and I suppose "wining") establishment. While some readers are justifiably outraged to learn that their best friends in, say, Dallas paid 30% less for the same bottle of wine they just imbibed at their local steakhouse in Idaho, I blithely factor the overage costs into the general theme of "my dining experience." Obvious price gauging aside, I've become more Zen since having kids. And when I say "my dining experience," it broadly encompasses the spectrum from dinners at home with my family to eating out in restaurants, high and lowbrow alike. For instance, I can make fish at home. If I purchase fresh Alaskan halibut from the local fishery for $21.99/ pound, I can pan sear it, crust it with almond or macadamia nuts, or fry it in panko. It may have an Asian flair with citrusy teriyaki or ponzu flavors or sit on a bed of roasted red peppers and chorizo, in a preparation I co-opted (i.e. ripped off) from Jack's La Jolla. It is certainly cheaper to make this stuff at home than pay $28 to $40 per entrée in a restaurant for similar fare. Of course this does not even begin to factor in the costs of appetizers, wine, dessert, coffee, cheese courses, mezze, aperitifs...as you can see by my credit card statements.
Yet at home, even my most fastidious mise-en-place fails to prevent my grubby-fingered children from sticking their dirty mitts into my seared fish proclaiming, "Lily try this." Inevitably this is followed by pause - chew, chew, chew - pause - spit, and "Lily no like this." Now I have slimy, saliva-y, half-chewed food in my hand, and a nonplussed kid trotting off to watch Dora in the other room, my meal disintegrating in disgusting, partially digested chunks. I know. I know; if I were as consistent with my parenting skills as my knife skills, meals at home might be more pleasant. But given the facts, why wouldn't I pay $5,435 (the actual cost of a 2003 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon at Prime Steakhouse in Las Vegas) to have someone make my children disappear for a few hours, let alone a snappy 23 minutes (I have low expectations)? And so I happily pay more than three times wholesale cost to drink a glass of wine in the company of adults - and adults only. Enjoying wine in a restaurant makes for entertaining adult banter; gulping a glass of wine at home makes my children tolerable, if not marginally amusing.
Nonetheless, I am not wholly immune to the frustrations of absurdly astronomical institutional wine pricing. Years ago, before kids, Brian and I packed a stellar picnic basket to accompany a summer evening with the San Diego Summer Pops. Naïve and brain-dead, we put a bottle of cheap Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay (OK, this was a long time ago) on the top of the basket in plain view. Of course, it was deftly confiscated by an intimidating, music loving 72 year old granny who volunteered for bouncer duty. Then, to stoke our ire further, the exact same bottle of wine was sold back to us at the concession stand at a 300% mark-up.
So what is the moral of the story? Next time you need to evade those pesky wine police, put your bottle of wine at the very bottom of your picnic basket. Then place a folded bath towel on top, obscuring the bottle and creating a "false bottom" of sorts. Layer the cold packs next, posturing as if you're using the towel to absorb the condensation from the ice packs. Last, carefully layer your food on top. Voila! It's a fool-proof, methodical way to beat the system every time, so you won't feel so glum the next time you pay $62 for the same bottle of chard you just bought at Costco for $14.99!