California Wine Lists: Value Desert


Blanket statements can be dangerous and instigative, so let’s begin by saying something nice about California Cabernet; several offer amazing, sexy, and voluptuous drinking.  Some are even global ambassadors offering classic varietal profiles and age worthiness such as Ridge Montebello, Dominus, and Dalla Valle, as examples.  Still, I drink very, very little of it besides the wines I bought in the ’80s and early 90’s and almost never, ever, never order California Cabernet in restaurants. Having offered up some niceties about California wine at the start, even handed dealing requires the additional sad declaration that consumer value is conspicuously missing from important California wine segments. While admittedly there are exceptions, here is a slice of Atlanta’s Bone’s Restaurant’s Cabernet Sauvignon and blends list submitted as evidential Exhibit 1A:

Bone's Cabernet and Blends wine listWithout fully doing the math, an average bottle appears to be $300-$400 with a median price of approximately $200.  While many of these wines are top names offering a few years of appreciated bottle age, and there are token sprinkles of pricey (sometimes weak vintage) high end Spanish, Bordeaux, and Australian wines in evidence, what’s a sensible enthusiast to do?  What about the non-wine enthusiast customer that just wants a nice bottle of wine to wash down a ribeye?  Is the list primarily designed for wine drinkers with bottomless wallets and limited appreciation horizons extending only to our nation’s borders? Are restaurants like this the “Napa limo” set’s east coast Meccas?

This is not a singling out nor condemnation of Bone’s.  There are plenty of steak houses that play to the Silver Oak and Harlan crowds with tunnel vision lists of boldly marked up California wines that were originally overpriced at release.  If you really dig around and know what you are doing, there is a handful of good wines with reasonable price points. But, there is little hand selling of reasonably priced, high quality, interesting, obscure wines (Californian or imports) for customers’ wanting to pay less than 3X the price of a slice of beef for their wine.  Maybe these restaurants figure their well heeled customers would rather pay dearly for familiar logos instead of embarrassingly mispronouncing wines with strange French or German names.  There’s plenty of all that going on in Atlanta and elsewhere.  How to help the vulnerable consumer?

Yesterday a young colleague told me he and his mother would be visiting Bone’s for dinner.  He wondered if I could make a few wine recommendations.  While my colleague is not a dedicated wine enthusiast, he appreciates good wine.  I had a helpless feeling staring at the website list prices until he said that his mom enjoyed Chardonnay.  Here is a slice of that list:

Bone's Chardonnay Wine ListNo relief in sight.  Staring at the <$100 choices, I pointed him to the 2006 Kongsgaard.  I would have gone with the ’95 Kalin personally, but the Kongsgaard released close to the $80 Bone’s was asking now and I thought we had found the value-needle in the haystack.  The punchline is when he ordered it, they brought him a 1/2 bottle; too good to be true and sadly misleading.  Is it impossible to find some California Chardonnay for <$100 at a restaurant like this?

Still, he wanted good red wine for <$100.  He was open to Zinfandel, so I checked the list:

Bone's Zinfandel Wine ListAmazingly overpriced, but alas the 2006 Martinelli Guiseppe & Luisa was $88.  When he ordered it, they brought him another 375 ml bottle!  Half bottles of Zinfandel for ninety bucks and again misleadingly represented online.  He ended up drinking two glasses of Paul Hobbs’ Malbec.  I am afraid to ask what he paid for them.

There is an obvious disconnect between California wines and their price points when you compare them to a broad spectrum of high quality imports from less heralded regions.  From my vantage point, California generally loses on the global wine stage when it comes to price:quality ratio comparisons.  I have steadily shared this sometimes unpopular point of view at WineZag.  The California wine trade usually weighs in with good excuses that include astronomical land values, a multi-tiered domestic distribution system, competitively unfair favorable economics and government assistance in Europe, etc. I have no intention to pick fights and truly respect all winemakers struggling to make a fair living.  Still, consumers have the final choice on how to spend their wine dollars and mine generally end up converting to Euros.

I wish I could take my young colleague and his mother with me to WD-50 in a couple weeks when I finally get my chance to explore Wiley Dufresne’s completely revamped menu.  I would share some Sicilian Occhipinti, Loire Valley Clos Rougeard and Greek Mercouri Antares with them.  Here is a slice of WD-50’s totally sensible, high quality, and food friendly wine list.  Compare it to Bone’s dominant California list.  Need I say more?

wd-50 wine list

  • suburbanwino

    Interesting to point out, Adam (hope you’re doing well, btw… we need to grab a glass when you’re in Atlanta).

    I think there’s another issue at play with a place like Bone’s (that I’ve been to several times). The list there, as you know, is dauntingly huge, but one can find a decent bottle at a… well, okay price, but it’s definitely a set up that can be intimidating to the uninitiated.

    That said, based on where they’re located in the city (lots of business travelers and corporate events and meetings), and based on who they’re after (power broker lunches and business “show off” dinners), they’re- wisely- taking advantage of corporate expense accounts.

    I always seem to see the guys in suits at these types of places with the bottle of Silver Oak Napa Valley on the table. Is there better wine than Silver Oak for half the price? Absolutely (in my opinion, at least). But, the reaction has to be, “ooh, Silver Oak! These guys must really want my business.”

    Not exactly advancing wine evangelism, but it works well for the bottom line.

  • Jenn

    I agree with you and with suburbanwino below. For the true wine lovers, we would love to see some of the superb wines whose taste and structure speak for themselves rather than the lables that people just know because they have heard them, but all too often and especially when you ask someone what they would choose, they seem to gravitate toward the brands they have heard about before time and time again. It doesn’t matter if that year was only a so-so year, the branding has done its job. And when trying to impress business clients that this restaurant and many others like it cater too, it can also be just as intimidating to go out on a limb with a wine. That being said, very nicely put, Adam.

  • awjapko

    Jenn, maybe when you join the Atlanta wine/restaurant trade you can inventory and hand sell the wines we geeks love!

  • awjapko


    I am on board for the glass/bottle/case of wine. In Atlanta a bunch over the next three weeks. Let’s do it. I totally concur with your take on the success of the program model….just sad for us winos in these restaurants catering to those that have just enough knowledge to be dangerous.

  • jim frazee

    Is this really $11,352 for a bottle of Screaming Eagle Cabernet? From 2008? Not 1908, 2008. This must be a misprint, or some people are very seriously out of their minds.

    JimF from Sewell NJ

  • awjapko

    You read it right, Jim.

  • Chris Vaughn

    This is the young colleague that Adam had advised on wine selection at Bones that night.

    I wanted to note that I never actually ordered the two bottles (The Konsgaard and Martinelli). I did however go to the restaurant with the plan of ordering them based on the leading prices posted on the online menu (which didn’t signify half bottles.)

    The menu (on the iPad) at the restaurant did reflect the bottle size however and I quickly realized they went from great value to “meh” value and passed.

    I ended up with the Paul Hobbs Malbec from the “by the glass” list on Adam’s recommendation of Hobbs as a great winemaker, and was satisfied even though I felt a little intimidated and dead in the water after being misled by the prices on the online menu.

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