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Letter of the Week – Fine Wine (Gouging) Times

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Dear ELV,

One of my first great dining experiences was with my father at Picasso in 1998, and it remains one of the best meals of my life. I’ve returned to Las Vegas dozens of times since then, first for the innumerable temptations your city offers a young man and, as I’ve aged, increasingly for the food.

I believe any frequent visitor to Las Vegas understands and accepts there is a surcharge for the fun. The games favor the house, “complimentary” wi-fi is $25, and food will cost a bit more than back home, even if home is New York or Chicago. What the visitor gets in return, especially folks like me who live as far from New York and Chicago as Las Vegas, is unparalleled access to things like gourmet restaurants. It’s a long, long shot that I could get a seat at Marea, Daniel Boulud, and Per Se on back-to-back-to-back nights, but I can eat at Guy Savoy, Twist, and Sage on any given trip.

All this (and this is the toughest part to express), and I can live the fantasy of being a bit more sophisticated, a bit better looking, a bit cooler than I am. Your city does a great job of fostering this fantasy, despite the porn slappers, drunks, et al. All I have to do is pony up a little bit more cash than I’m accustomed to, but nothing too extreme (I’m omitting bottle service, as I missed that boat by about a decade), and I can half-believe I’m Danny Ocean.

That brings me to wine lists and wine prices in Las Vegas. Your recent photo of pinot noirs offered at DB Brasserie struck a nerve. I have been snapped out of my fantasy time and time again by the markups on wine. While I am confident I can’t prepare anything on L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon’s menu and am happy to pay for the experience, I’m equally confident I can pick up a bottle of almost any wine I recognize for 1/3 to a 1/4 of what it’s listed at in most LV restaurants. I have yet to visit a city whose restaurants charge a higher wine markup. Despite my best efforts, I feel like a sucker, then a cheapskate for flipping to wines by the glass. More and more, I just drink good beer and order more food, but a part of me is invariably disappointed.

I have had a few really good experiences with Las Vegas sommeliers, and I’ve returned to their restaurants many times. I’ve also had several experiences that left me convinced that the wine prices are the way they are because conventioneers and whales will pay those prices whether they know any better or not.

Mostly I’m frustrated that I don’t get to enjoy the full fine dining experience. I’m also a little angry that a place that markets itself to gourmands doesn’t recognize — or doesn’t care — that those same diners will see how much a familiar wine costs and will instantly feel like dupes. Bring the markup more in line with what you’d find in other dining destinations, and folks like me would spend a lot more in your restaurants. Plus we’d get to keep living the dream, at least until we hit the security line at McCarran.

Best,

Averse to Alcohol Avariciousness Andy

ELV responds:

Dear AA x 2,

We at ELV feel your pain. We have railed on for years (decades now) about the gouging that goes on on Las Vegas (Strip) wine lists. To be totally (un)fair about it, those outrageous tariffs mirror the food prices — which demand the diner bend over and like it, without even the common courtesy of a reach-around.

(As luck would have it, we were reading your letter the other day at Palm (hardly the most expensive place in town), and almost on cue the wine list was placed before us. Right there under the $14 glasses of chardonnay, sat Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio…for $78 bottle! This, for a bottle that retails for twenty one dollars and probably cost the restaurant ten.)

And Palm is hardly the worst offender.  When ELV first started writing about restaurants — back in the Pleistocene era — the rule of thumb for restaurants pricing their wines was 2.5x’s retail or 3x’s wholesale. These days, triple the retail cost is the norm, with many places shamelessly pricing their wines at four times that….which represents a 500+% markup over what they paid for the bottle.

We must add that all of this gouging is unique to the Las Vegas Strip. No place else in America (probably the world) inflates their bottle prices like we do — all in order to hit the tourist/conventioneer/high roller as hard as possible during the 3.5 days they stay here. Part of this can be explained by the arcane comp rules which casinos use to seduce their players. It behooves them to have that guest use up his freebies quickly — and what better way than saying he received $1,000 worth of wine that can be bought anywhere else in America for $300.

That’s also why you see so many expensive watch and jewelry stores in casinos — places also known for their insane markups. (ELV has had a casino accountant explain the principles and bookkeeping behind these kabuki dances of greed between casinos and their customers, but it always makes his head hurt.)

Over the years, we have discussed these issues with many a wine professional in our humble burg. Their reactions run the gamut from a “we charge what the market will bear” shrug to straight up “our prices aren’t any worse than New York’s or L.A.’s” defensiveness. No one ever wants to address the underlying philosophy of why restaurants (especially one’s not paying actual rent – like the ones in the Bellagio or Caesars) feel compelled to price a pre-made beverage so far out of so many people’s reach.*

The best explanation came to us from a sommelier at one of our tonier restaurants: “For every 3 or 4 parties that come in and order by the glass (presumably because they balk at paying $150 for a $40 bottle of wine),” he told us,  “some bigshot will drop a couple of grand on three bottles and more than make up for it.”

We know these explanations won’t exactly ease the hurt, but at least now you know why you will only find us paying for bottles of wine at Chada Thai, Lotus of Siam, and Marche Bacchus.

Oenophilically yours,
ELV

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* We hope the Millennial Generation will put a stop to all the snobby falderol that has kept wine priced as a luxury item to the Baby Boomers for the past 30 years. Once we boomers start kicking the bucket, there’s going to be a lot of  fermented grape juice on the shelves which will need to be priced to sell….instead of show off.

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11 Responses to Letter of the Week – Fine Wine (Gouging) Times

  • Add Todd’s Unique to that list. Very favorable pricing

  • I’m both seduced by the dining options in LV and repulsed by the mark-ups on both food and (especially) wine. I don’t mind paying for a nice restaurant experience. I’m good at justifying anything to further my cause, so I can argue that the quality makes up for the low “value” of the evening. But the bloom is now off the rose in light of the continually diminishing lack of decent and fair value in moderate- to high-end LV restaurant experiences. I rent a car now during my visits to town and seek out lesser-known places, many with the guidance of ELV.

  • I have up on wine in Vegas years ago and just have cocktails or water with dinner, water is equally marked up beyond any other city too.
    I was in CUT and realised the half bottle of Californian I was considering cost more than the full in a restaurant at home and I live in London.

    Whilst I expect the European, Australian and Kiwi wines to cost more in Vegas, I’d expect to pay less for something local.

  • I know this will be tough for 3.5 day visitors but stay away from the frikkin’ “strip”…. at least the “new” strip. If indeed you cannot stay away from it, well then NO WHINING ALLOWED! If ya wanna play then ya gotta pay. Follow ELV’s advice to some of the nicer off-strip locales and check out some of the independant liquor stores for good prices on really decent wines. Unfortunately you won’t get sommelier service though, and maybe that isn’t a bad thing either.

    Speaking of off-strip, ELV, is there a definate time for the annual Greek Food Festival that you are aware of? Attention all ELV readers … “the best Greek food restaurant that is only open 3 days a year”. Incredible prices, incredible Greek beer, wine (and of course Ouzo) and positively scrumptious Greek food. A really really happy place as the Greek Food Festival makes both your wallet and tummy happy.

  • SM Pinot grigio cost them $16 and its not good… I really like the 3 restaurant you name for low cost wine…

  • Pinot Brasserie at Venetian is a shining star on the strip in this respect, free corkage!

  • Last year a out of town friend and I dined at Picasso. He bought two bottles of an expensive red and white wine at Lee’s Liquors. I don’t recall the labels but he paid north of $150 per bottle. Picasso charged a $25 per bottle cork fee. He saved almost $700 on wine cost if he had order the same off the wine list at the restaurant. Now I do not know if every high end restaurant will allow a patron to “bring their own”. It pays to inquire. I am not a wine coinsurer, so I really don’t order wine at dinner, just top shelf hard liquor drinks. We didn’t suffer any adverse service or “attitude” by the Picasso staff or management because he brought his own wine. But you never know. Just saying!

  • If the wine is on the list Art S. of the restaurant, then no. Few exceptions will restaurants ‘may or may not.’ Hardly a hostess word will be enough to say it is allowed. So on further confirmation, call to speak to the suoervisor/ manage for the real answer. Hostess is likely not know , though it would be very promising if they did.

  • Lotus of Siam, Chada, and Marche Bacchus were the exact three places I was going to recommend to Andy, who I think is smart not to pay outlandish costs for vino. What he might not realize is that at least at LOS and Chada (I haven’t been to MB since the regime change), the food is likely to be superior to Sage or Picasso.

  • What is the correct amount to tip if you pay a corkage? The waitron will be getting substantially less percentage wise if you bring your own in. Do you still tip based on the price of the wine off the list?

  • After seeing some of the comments this past weekend, I took the opportunity to call my friend with whom I dined at Picasso to ask him a couple follow up questions about our dining experience and customer provided wine. What follows is both interesting and instructive to those who posted questions. First, he told me that he had called the restaurant in advance to see what their policy was regarding guest provided wine. He said that as long as the wine being provided was NOT on the restaurant’s wine menu then he could bring as many personal select wines he would like, subject to a $25 per bottle corking charge. My friend said that if he had chosen a similar vintage wine from the restaurant’s own wine menu the cost would have been approx. $700 based on the mark ups. ( The two bottle’s he brought for dinner cost him about $150 each including tax.) Finally, unbeknownst to me since he paid for diner, my friend said he added an additional amount above the 20% tip for the food to cover the added work for the service personnel dealing with his provided wine. I hope this adds to the conversation. Ciao Bella!

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