The Enduring Mystery of the Vegas Wine List

imageI’ve been trying to make sense of bullshit Vegas wine lists since 199o.

$91 for a bottle. $92 for another. WHAT’S THE FRIGGIN’ DIFFERENCE?

$3,900 for Screaming Eagle? At The Barrymore? Who the hell are they kidding?

400% markups. Oddball wines for straight-laced, middleweight clients who never met a Beringer chardonnay they didn’t like? What the hell is going on around here?

Answer: We haven’t the foggiest.

Even after 26 years of looking at these randomly-priced, absurdly-concocted menus, we remain as confused as ever as to the thinking behind them.

But all of this confusion and cogitation has led me to three simple conclusions:

1) Most lists are the result of wholesaler pressure on gullible/aspirational retailers (restaurants) that don’t know nearly as much about wine (or food/wine pairings) as they think they do. They just point and pick bottles, and hope they can make some money on the insane markups on the bottles they stock.

2) The savvier places aim to fuck their customers and fuck them hard (not in a good way) by dazzling them with variety and boxing them into having no other choice but to capitulate to paying absurd, tourist-trap prices — the same way you don’t mind paying $100 for a 20 minute gondola ride because hey, you’re in Venice! — because when you see it next to a $275 bottle, suddenly 150 doesn’t look so bad.

3) These lists aren’t about selling wine, they’re about showing off about wine. And eating up comps to high rollers. And trying to make an obscene profit on the one or two or three tables a night that will blow thousands on a bottle, rather than actually selling lots of different bottles TO PEOPLE WHO ACTUALLY ENJOY WINE. In other words, Las Vegas restaurants aren’t really about drinking wine at all; they’re about the idea of wine, and how to best use it to soak the gullible traveler or gambler. (Gamblers happily allow casinos to use these unconscionable mark-ups to satisfy whatever comp they’ve “earned,” not questioning whether that $2,000 bottle is really worth having that much deducted from the “comp.” It isn’t, of course, it isn’t even worth a fraction of the list price. On the other hand, if the money really meant anything to gamblers, they wouldn’t be throwing it down a shithole, so you could say they’re just letting the casino hose them in another way.)

Sad to say, but some of my favorite restaurants fall into categories 2 and 3.

Add it all up and you have the biggest con in American tourism: the Las Vegas wine list. And it’s only gotten worse in the past two years as we’ve come out of the recession, and F&B execs have found our conventioneers ripe (once again) for bending over.

It’s enough to make a beer drinker out of you.

End of rant.

Some of the worst:

> Pick a steakhouse

> Pick a French restaurant

> Carbone

> Mr. Chow

> Wynn/Encore (pick anyplace)

> Bellagio (pick almost anyplace)

A few of the better ones:

> Table 10 (reminds me of the kind of list you find in interesting small restaurants in Chicago or New York)

> Marche Bacchus (about the only place in town I spend my own money on fermented grape juice)

> Guy Savoy (as thick as a dictionary, with all the requisite big hitter bottles, but there’s gold in them thar hills if you’re willing to dig deep to find it)

> db Brasserie (there’s sticker shock to be sure, but also some off-beat stuff at relatively soft prices)

> Chada Street/Chada Thai (a white wine lover’s dream)

> Lotus of Siam (ditto)

> Due Forni (small, well-chosen list (and by-the-glass) that goes great with Carlos Buscaglia’s food)

Final thought/tip to help you avoid feeling like you’ve just been sodomized by a wine bottle in Las Vegas: Stick with whites, preferably one of the non-chardonnay varietals. Look for Rieslings, GrĂ¼ner Veltliners, Arneis and/or any sort of white wine made from a grape you’ve never heard of. Ask your sommelier and trust their judgment. Believe it or not, most whites go great with all kinds of food, even beef. Remember: reds are where they really rape you.

6 thoughts on “The Enduring Mystery of the Vegas Wine List

  1. As a (frequent) visitor to your fine city, I think your perspective might be a bit skewed. Are the prices messed up? Absolutely! Are the offerings manipulated by Southern Wine and Absolutist? Of course! Are they banking on the cache appeal to neophyte oenophiles? Undoubtedly!

    But the context is also one of absurd excess in every other way. I rarely find myself in Boston saying “Gee, which of the seventeen options shall I choose for my A5 Wagyu, bucket of Golden Osetra Caviar?”… “Well, it depends on who has the most white truffles to put on my unicorn sweetbreads of course!”.

    Beyond that is the transactional obscenity that is Las Vegas. I am hardly a high roller, but I can win or lose a few thousand dollars without breaking a sweat. If I do that in ten minutes, what the Hell is a $500 bottle? And there are high rollers. Particularly when you look at your offenders (Bellagio, Wynn). Walk through the high roller rooms and you see the GDP of several small countries being wagered on one hand. These trust fund babies and Persian oil magnates have bank balances with more zeros than you can find racists at a Trump rally. Money LITERALLY doesn’t mean anything.

    I do feel bad for you John, because this is one of those areas where living in Vegas leaves you shortchanged. You’re issues are completely valid. But don’t be baffled by it. The answer is quite simple.

    P.S. How was that Screaming Eagle at The Barrymore, moneybags?

  2. ELV, you are 100% correct in what you say, on what’s going on, who are the biggest gougers, and your list and mine for some of the less egregious offenders have considerable overlap. The one thing I’ll point out is that anyone who goes into the two restaurants you single out, Mr. Chow and Carbone, and doesn’t expect to get gouged at every turn isn’t paying attention. You’ve send kinder things about those two establishments than I ever will. I’ll repeat categorically that their food is by no measure worth what they charge for it.

  3. Todd’s Unique has a very consumer friendly wine list that is deep on chewy big reds from California with quite an emphasis on Paso Robles wines..

  4. J.C. Nice to see that you included CHADA Street & CHADA Wine in your “not screwing the wine customer list” This however is not the point of my post. Several weeks ago I asked your opinion on the San Gennaro Feast. You were absolutely correct in your opinion of an over-cooked and over-cheesed effort. The mediocre food aside what REALLY “cheesed” me off was the absolutely stupid prices charged by the local brewski purveyors. I don’t mind you (or a business) making a million bucks, but not offa me and not all at once! I did finally find a small outlet that was somewhat reasonable in pricing in regards to my alcohol requirements. Ten bucks got you a 12 oz. beer and a shot of your fave. poison. Even the directions to this food sham were incorrect. I should have taken that as an omen I suppose but the Missus had already bought the tickets so of course we had to use ’em. Right once again J.C.

    2007 FORDHD

  5. …..DUDE….have you ever heard of Screaming Eagle…why of course you have…I know for a fact a certain establishment in our town sold a bottle last week for 9k….just sayn….also Chada Street/Chada Thai is an F ing joke, but I told you that before…can those brilliant white wine experts serve their wine any colder…LMFAO…wait…did you mention TABLE TEN…DUDE what has married life done to you….and tell me again who owns Table Ten….just sayn….

  6. One of the better things about going to California wine country is dining in really good places that do understand wine/food combinations and price their wines a fraction above retail to boot. I’ve suffered through the Las Vegas wine mentality for years (heh Manny, bring me another Margaux) and whenever possible pay the corkage and enjoy what I know works with my meal. Certainly not possible at the more pretentious establishments but more do-able than you might think. Worth a call ahead at any rate. An ’89 Montrose from home might just be a better choice than a cult wine on the list.

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