Will eliminating tipping crimp wine sales?

eliminating_tippingDanny Meyer’s restaurants will phase out tipping next year. Simultaneously, they will raise prices 25% and remove the tip line from diners’ checks.

“There will be one total, as if you were buying a sweater at Brooks Brothers,” Danny Meyer told the New York Times. No more tipping at the coat check or the bar either.

It’s part of a growing trend across the country at both high-end restaurants and low. The Times piece presents reasons to eliminate tipping include simplicity for the diner (Brooks Brothers sweater) as well as being able to better pay kitchen staff (federal labor laws prevent pooled tips from being shared with the kitchen staff). Union Square Hospitality Group, headed by Meyer, employs 1,800 people and serves about 50,000 meals a week.

What do you think? Many people find America’s tipping culture irksome while others say that it is the basis of superb service.

One thing is for sure: the already high prices of wine in restaurants is going up. If you order a $100 bottle of wine at a Danny Meyer restaurant today, you pay $115-$120 after tip. Post-reform, that wine will be $125. Is that going to prevent you from ordering that bottle of wine? Probably not. But it is more than you paid before.

Marvin Shanken probably does not like this news. The publisher of Wine Spectator set off a firestorm in 2006 when he tackled the subject. In discussing a wine-drenched meal in which there was $300 of food ordered and $1,200 of wine, he suggested tipping 20% on the food portion and 7.5% on the wine for a total tip of $150. Under the new USHG policy of including a service fee, the bill for that meal would be $375 higher.

Whether eliminating tipping and raising prices will crimp high-end wine sales remains to be seen. I doubt that the total spend will be that different, frankly. But there may be some “trading down” in some categories, especially as diners adjust to the higher sticker prices. And it would be interesting to know how this will affect sommelier compensation; perhaps this will remove a (perceived?) incentive to steer diners toward higher priced wines and foster greater trust between sommelier and diner.

Wine under $20: Clos de la Roilette 2014


Who doesn’t love a good wine under $20? I have a doozy here for you this Friday: Clos de la Roilette, Fleurie, 2014 (find this wine).

I’ve been a fan of the producer for a while. We recently uncorked a 2009 “cuvée tardive,” a barrel-aged selection from their old vines sprinkled in the manganese and clay soils of Fleurie. It was drinking superbly. A few weeks later, with that 09 still on my mind, I stumbled on the current release (2014) of the “regular” cuvée, which is aged in large foudres after a semi-carbonic maceration. We popped it and it was a joyous addition to the last weekend of summer (yes, a couple of weekends ago). With ebullient dark fruits and enlivening acidity, the wine gives the highest distinction to “gulpable” Beaujolais. A steal at $17.99.

State dinner wines for President Xi

state_dinner_wine_china2Tomorrow night, President and Mrs. Obama will host President Xi Jinping of China for a State Dinner at the White House. And we have been able to procure the menu for the “Autumn feast”–with the wine pairings!

The White House has a tradition of serving only American wines. This policy has been in place since the 1960s, though “Tricky Dick” Nixon was known to pour American wines for guests, while he had Chateau Margaux served to him from a bottle wrapped in a white cloth napkin.

Thus it seems odd that the first wine on the menu tomorrow night is listed as “Shaoxing wine.” Shaoxing wine is a traditional Chinese wine fermented from rice. While no vintage or producer is listed on the menu, one is left to assume that this is, in fact, a wine…from China! Is this a break from the tradition of serving only American wines? It turns out: no. A query to a White House staffer clarified that the rice wine from China is in fact only an *ingredient* in the soup and will not be served qua wine.

Even if it were served , it’s not necessarily a bad thing to pour a wine from the guest of honor’s country. In fact, it can be respectful to show the honored (American) guests to the country’s wines. But I’m fine with the all-American approach too. Earlier this year, there was a sake toast (after the domestic sparkler) for Japan’s PM Abe.

The last state dinner for a Chinese president, the White House served Read more…

Next NYU wine course – starts Oct 14

bottiThe air is getting cool. The undergrads are swarming campus. And they are cheering the NYU football team! Oh, wait, there is no football team…

But there is a wine class! Yes, a real, live, in-person, wine class! My next NYU wine course starts October 14 and runs for six consecutive Wednesday evenings. It is open to all and you don’t have to worry about failing, because there are no grades! And the only homework is to taste wine, which we will do in class too for good measure.

Now in its tenth year (but always oh-so-fresh!), the course provides an overview of how to taste wine, the basics of wine in France and America, as well as touching on the hot-button issues of our day. The two hours will fly by each evening and by the end you will have so much wine knowledge that you could fill up one of the huge botte in Barolo! Hope to see you there!

Click to register and see the course details.

Blue Apron adds wine delivery – and huge ambitions

blue_apron_wineAnother day, another company that wants to deliver wine to your home!

Today, it’s Blue Apron who is adding wine delivery. The Brooklyn startup offers “fresh ingredients, great recipes delivered weekly to your home.” Although I haven’t tried it, lots of people have since the company says they deliver three million meals-in-a-box per month now. Started in 2012, the company closed a $150 million round of funding at a $2 billion valuation.

They have just announced that wine will now be able to be delivered with the ingredient boxes. Sounds great! But which wines? They are mum on that. The only option is to sign up for the $65.99 monthly sampler, which includes six bottles. There’s a catch: the bottles are only 500ml, or two-thirds the size of a regular bottle. This unusual size means that they are not buying wines off the shelf but rather having a (domestic?) winery source the wine and put it in their unusual bottle size.

This particular arrangement could be a good thing–it could reduce prices to the consumer by some form of buying directly from wineries. But without knowing any producers going into the subscription, I’d be leery. Once bitten, twice shy–good thing you can cancel any time. An email to Blue Apron seeking further clarification of sourcing and how they are navigating the regulatory red tape was not returned.

But wait: The story is not over! In their piece on the news, Reuters quotes the Blue Apron CEO, Matt Salzberg, as saying “We think because we already have our large customer base already cooking meals with us on a regular weeknight basis, over time we can be the largest wine e-commerce company in the country.”

Wine e-commerce is mostly a snarl of red tape, and most companies in the space are private so it is hard to get information on revenues. Wine.com’s CEO posted that they had $75 million in sales in 2013. Further, Amazon is testing wine delivery in several markets and they are a formidable competitor in any area. Fresh Direct sells and delivers wines now. Some wine stores do tens of millions of dollars of e-commerce business. So Salzberg must have had a double shot of ambition in his coffee this morning to think Blue Apron wine is going from $0 to $75 million+ with (possibly) unknown wines in 500ml bottles!

Have you gotten wines from them? If so, how are they? Hit the comments!

Leaders and liters: Putin and Berlusconi uncork trouble

Today’s installment of “Leaders and Liters,” our series on world leaders and the wines they drink, features an unusual figure: Vladimir Putin, purported teetotaler. His partner in what seems like a buddy flick was none other than Silvio Berlusconi who is certainly no teetotaler, instead known for his bunga bunga parties.

Vlad and Silvio met up in the Crimea late last week and, among other sites, they toured the Massandra winery, which apparently houses a formidable collection of old bottles. After the cellar tour, Berlusconi asked the pro-Russian winery director if they could taste. The winery director then uncorked a 1775 sherry from Jerez de la Frontera, brought to the winery under the reign of Catherine the Great by Count Mikhail Vorontsov, a “wine-loving count served as governor-general of Crimea for more than two decades in the early 19th century.” Wine geeks might say, after the tour, they hit the sack together!

The winery director now faces prosecution. “This is one of the five bottles that constitute not only Massandra’s or Crimea’s heritage, but the heritage of all Ukrainian people,” the prosecutor was quoted as saying. He valued it at $90,000. But since Crimea is no longer part of Ukraine, it will be difficult to prosecute. Ukraine has also banned Berlusconi for three years.

In other news, a bottle from the 1891 vintage also went missing that day. Berlusconi was seen on Russian TV asking if he could try a bottle…Video after the jump. Read more…

Sommelier tastes box wine

Patrick Cappiello, voted the superhottest somm of 2014 and shaping up to be a finalist for 2015, tasted some box wine on camera. As you might imagine, there is lots of gagging and spitting (one named Vella Burgundy scores an F with notes of raisin and vinegar as well as “Louis Jadot must be rolling over in his grave”). Bandit Merlot gets lots of praise from him and merits a B+ score–as does Bota Box.

While it makes for a good segment, I wish that P. Cap had used his place of power and influence to praise the format itself. For a lot of people, a 3L box is an affordable way to squeeze off a fresh glass for many nights in a row. It’s also greener, with a lot lower carbon footprint. But I’ve said all this before…What needs to be said again is that the industry needs to put better wine in the box. And there are a few producers and importers are are doing just that. Cappiello posts photos of Miller High Life to Instagram as well as bottle shots of Mugnier and Coche Dury. So is no stranger to lowbrow (as well as highbrow, natch). By highlighting a few more of the good box wines out there and praising the packaging format, people like Cappiello can help remove the stigma of the box, which would be more informative than just LOLing about how bad box wine is for the millionth time. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still a funny video and worth a click.

The world’s most confusing wine list?

confusing_wine_listHave you ever sat down at at wine bar and thought, “Man, I’d really love a glass of vieilles vignes ’13!” Never mind what grape variety the vieilles vignes are yielding. Nor where they are grown. Nor who presided over that growth and subsequent fermentation and maturation. Just a straight up “vieilles vignes ’13”? Frankly, it sounds like an outdated campaign bumper sticker from France. Outtakes from the full campaign posters: “Victoire aux vieilles vignes! Contre la discrimination des vignes agées! On y go les vieilles en 2013!”

Anyhoo, if this sort of ordering sounds like what you’d like to do, then sidle up to the bar at Hatchet Hall in LA. The sommelier has put together a fiendishly minimalistic wine list that was first called out for its absurdity by Besha Rodell of LA Weekly and then retweeted by, well, everybody in the food and wine TwittoFacebookoblogoshpere. Rodell describes the list broken down into categories not of your quotidian color, variety, or regions but rather by categories like “Heather,” “James,” and “Michael.” Upon request for clarification, Rodell was told these were the names of the “portfolio managers,” whatever that means (distributor sales reps?). Then there are the woefully insufficient wine terms including the “vielles vignes ’13” as well as “Teleki ’13” and “Bela Jufahrk ’11”

Apparently, the list tries to emulate George Saintsbury’s 1915 “Notes on a Cellar Book” in it’s minimalism. But is woefully insufficient in providing actionable information for the diner. While I haven’t seen the whole wine list (it is not available online), the photos of it posted in Rodell’s thorough dismantling of the list make it make it worthy of including in a seminar of how NOT to write a wine list. Sure, some bistro wine lists in France only include the region and the price but those are not particularly informative either.

Wine is complicated. But there are ways of making it easier to navigate a wine list. This, however, is not one of them.


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