Why does wine cost so much in Irish restaurants?

John Wilson explains why most restaurants need a wine waiter, not a sommelier and selects some of his favourite wine lists

A good sommelier will make your wine drinking a better experience, and might save you money too

A good sommelier will make your wine drinking a better experience, and might save you money too

 

It shouldn’t be difficult to get a glass of something decent to drink in a restaurant. Yet so many people seem to find the experience complicated and often stressful. Do you avoid the second cheapest wine on the list? (Not sure that one works.) Do you stare at an incomprehensible list of beers and wines, wondering what on Earth to choose?

November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times. irishtimes.com/foodmonth

The Irish wine list has changed, usually for the better, compared to the long, boring lists of yore. But most could certainly improve. One recent welcome addition is the drinks list – as well as wine, more go-ahead restaurants offer a range of craft beers, ciders and other locally-produced drinks to go with your food – both alcoholic and alcohol-free.

The mega-list seems to be a thing of the past; time was, every time I went out with friends, as the wine guy, I was handed a large, heavy encyclopedia that took hours to trawl through, while my thirsty fellow diners waited with parched throats. It may be required of a Michelin-starred restaurant but, leaving them aside, I have always believed it is the job of the wine buyer to make a selection on the customer’s behalf. Less really can be more; a restaurant doesn’t offer every kind of food going, so why should it do the so with its drinks?

We have a dozen or more properly-trained sommeliers, including Julie Dupouy, who has finished in the top 10 worldwide (a brilliant performance, given the backing and support her rivals received).

A good sommelier is a beautiful thing, someone who effortlessly guides you to a great wine and puts on a little theatre at the same time. A bad sommelier makes you feel uncomfortable and unworthy. But most restaurants need a wine waiter, not a sommelier – somebody enthusiastic and reasonably knowledgeable about both food and drinks and how the two go together. In other countries, drinks servers are required to train before they start working.

One importer lamented to me: “Restaurants pay anything from €30,000-€70,000 a year for a really good chef to produce great food, and then ask a trainee to do the wine list.” A good wine waiter can sell more wine and better wine, as well as keeping costs low by selecting fewer, but menu-appropriate wines, beers and other drinks.

One leading wine educator told me: “Some wine lists seem to be put together by importers for restaurants who don’t know or care about it. It is crazy really because it is a marker of care, quality, expertise and culinary knowledge when a place has a good list.”

Thankfully, we now have a list of independent bistros and casual restaurants offering quirky, interesting wines and beers. We also have plenty of more up-market ‘white-linen’ restaurants. But not all of them price their wines fairly. I know all the arguments: restaurants need to make a profit, staff must be paid, and most of all, rents, in city-centre Dublin at least, are sky high. Restaurants are run by accountants and margin is all-important across the board.

Wine racks at Paradiso in Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney
Wine racks at Paradiso in Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney

But here’s the problem – if you eat out in a nice restaurant, as a wine-lover you want to drink nice wine too. But a wine bill of €300 or more for two bottles of good wine that you could buy in your local shop for €100 or less just seems excessive.

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For example, a bottle of the excellent Roisín Curley Saint Romain sells for €50-€57 in retail shops, giving the retailer a 25-30 per cent margin. A restaurant will buy it for considerably less. Yet I saw it €130 in one Dublin city-centre restaurant – hardly an encouragement to trade up.

Frequently, I find myself eating at home or going to one of the increasing number of wine shops that started being part-time wine bars and now seem to be morphing into mini-restaurants. Whelehan’s in Loughlinstown, south Dublin, charges €8 corkage on any wine from their shop when you eat there. That same bottle of Saint Romain would cost me €58 to have with my dinner. Green Man Wines, Ely64 and Grapevine are serving ambitious food, and have wines at great prices. They are not alone.

A Michelin-starred restaurant with its massive stock of wines, some of them slowly maturing, and a properly trained staff has a justification. Others less so. Some attempt to hide their margins by buying wine that is available exclusively to restaurants – it doesn’t really work. As a wine lover, I look first at wines in the €40-€80 category. If I see nothing interesting, I quickly drop down to something less expensive, which invariably lessens the overall pleasure.

Ireland now has no shortage of really good wine importers offering an amazing array of wines.

A FEW OF MY FAVOURITE WELL-PRICED WINE LISTS

Paradiso in Cork has always had a great wine list – short, full of real interest, and very keenly priced. They also have every wine available in four sizes. They have offered Terras Gauda ‘O Rosal’ Albariño for €38.15 a bottle – retail €21; or Foillard Morgon ‘Côte du Py’ for €56 – retail €37? Yes please.

Sean Gargano in The Legal Eagle in Dublin 1 has a mouth-watering selection of beer, wines and spirits at great prices.

Just down the road in Stoneybatter, L Mulligan Grocer has an unbelievable list of beers (the menu has recommended beers with each dish) gins and whiskies, as well a decent, short well-priced wine list.

The lists at Uno Mas on Aungier Street in Dublin 2 and its sister Etto show plenty of love, attention and knowledge.

Loose Canon on Drury Street, Dublin 2, has a small but perfectly formed selection of natural, biodynamic and organic wine to complement the cheeses and charcuterie.

Chapter One on Parnell Square has an excellent comprehensive list, befitting its Michelin-starred status, and here they do mature their own wine. On Wexford Street, the Las Tapas de Lola list is full of Spanish goodies, including a lovely sherry list.

Loam in Galway has an exciting hand-picked list selected by someone who knows their wine.

The wines at Ox in Belfast are as good as the food, and that is saying something.

Kelly’s in Rosslare has a unique and wonderful list, most of it imported directly from the finest addresses, and unbelievably well-priced.

Ely Wine Bar in Ely Place, Dublin 2, has a brilliant, lovingly created wine list, always fairly priced.

Shiva Gautam in Monty’s of Kathmandu in Temple Bar, Dublin,  indulges his passion for wine to the full.

Luca di Marzio in Rosa Madre, in Temple Bar, has a jaw-dropping list of wine that grows by the minute.

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