The economy may seem like the easy explanation for the trend (and that’s certainly part of it), but according to area wine directors, the lists reflect D.C.’s changing dining demographics.
“People are becoming more interested in wine at a younger age,” said John Toigo, wine director for Fiola and Casa Luca. “Before, it was when they got older and had an established job, and said, ‘I want to look fancier when I go out.’ I think there’s been a general backlash to some of the prices you often see at restaurants, especially if you want to go out and just get a nice comfortable bite to eat.”
Max Kuller, wine director for both Doi Moi and Estadio on 14th Street NW, said clientele age was definitely a factor in his choices for the wine lists at both of his restaurants.
“They have a demographic that is fairly youthful, so I wanted a bunch of wines with friendly price tags,” he said. “We’re in a culture where there is a lot of competition from craft beer and cocktails. Wine needs to stay competitive with that.”
At Doi Moi, Kuller also wanted to make sure he had affordable wines that paired well with the Southeast Asian restaurant’s spicy fare.
“I think that wine is not necessarily the thing people think of with the cuisine. I think beer is kind of the natural thing,” he said. “I wanted to entice people to get into the wine list with a bunch of stuff in the $20s.”
That list also “plays to the price point of the restaurant,” said Kuller. Doi Moi’s main curries and rice dishes are all less than $15, and the rest of the menu, made up of small plates, tops out at $12 apiece.
But even some of the city’s swankier restaurants are following the trend. Range, the Chevy Chase restaurant from Top Chef alum Bryan Voltaggio, prices its 600-bottle wine list at markups much closer to retail than typical restaurant markups.
Range’s wines — which run from $20 to $5,000 — are sold at a markup of close to twice the wholesale price, according to wine director Keith Goldston, who says traditional markups can go as high as five times wholesale.
Goldston believes the lack of a markup is working.
“It’s so hard to gauge, but I definitely see people taking advantage of it and ordering a second bottle than I’d ever noticed in the past,” Goldston said, adding that there has been no push back from management to increase those margins.
“I’d rather see the industry move toward not taking such high markups and not have the beverage department be the ATM for the restaurant,” Goldston said.
Range’s list has appealed to the casual consumer and “wine geeks” alike, he said.
“A lot of people are content spending a certain price range,” he said. “It’s like getting a free upgrade for that same price. It’s like paying coach prices and getting a seat in business class.”
Not all of the region’s wine directors are lowering markup margins across their menu, but are tinkering with more affordable options. For the 28 wines under $28 at Casa Luca, Toigo said there are certain wines that are marked below typical restaurant rates.
“Then there are some wines that are so good and so close to the breaking point, we just put them on there, because that’s a chance for us to say ‘There are some really great wines at a great price,'” he said.