I probably spend three nights a week dining out, and I'm sad to report I see signs of the economic downturn everywhere I go. Staff cuts are the order of the day. Wine lists aren't being updated - meaning new inventory isn't being purchased. And empty seats abound.
I have yet to meet the restaurateur clever enough to make money without customers. The problem? People aren't going out, at least not as much. The drop in business threatens everyone, but especially those restaurants with steep overhead, such as rent or debt.
The solution? This is way too easy. The solution is you. Most of us who love good food and fine wine appreciate the culinary boom seen across the United States over the past two decades. The modern restaurant culture we have embraced came to be because there was demand for what innovative chefs and restaurateurs had to offer.
Now that we have them in every nook and cranny of the U.S., it would be a shame to let them go, as in go out of business. We can't abandon our friends - and many are our friends, and a vital part of the community where they do business - in their time of need.
So here's the dilemma. You have been impacted by economic conditions as well. Dinner for two, with wine, can be a costly proposition. More often than not, the wine costs more than the food. But you do have to eat. And sometimes a bit of a splurge is good for the soul. Still, there is the budget consideration.
I have a few ideas.
First, there is no shame in taking your own wine to a restaurant (providing it's legal in your state). It's done all the time. Most restaurants will charge a "corkage" fee for providing service and stemware, but with the exception of the most exclusive and/or expensive restaurants, the fee is usually nominal.
When I take wine to a restaurant, I like to buy something off the wine list as a show of support. It can be as simple as a wine by the glass, or nothing at all, depending upon your means. Remember, in these trying times the restaurateur will be happy to see you whether you are drinking his wine or yours. Some restaurants even have one night a week when they waive the corkage fee, encouraging customers to bring their own wine.
One simple rule of etiquette I follow is that I try to take a wine I don't think will be on the restaurant's list. Another is the courtesy of offering the owner or wait staff a splash of the wine I've brought so they can share the experience. If it's an unusual or rare bottle, the restaurant will often waive the corkage, too.
You should also be on the lookout for restaurants that offer a half-price wine night. These were popular even before the recession hit, and should be at the top of your list if you're itching to try a special bottle at a ridiculously low price.
Finally, there's nothing wrong with bottom feeding. That means scouting for the bargains on the list, and checking out the cheapest wines. Once upon a time, the cheapest wines on a restaurant wine list were universally boring. Not so much any more. Wine savvy restaurants hire wine savvy professionals to stock their cellars and create a list. Every wine professional I know in the restaurant industry takes great pride in finding exceptional "value" wines. You might be surprised at how good most of the least expensive wines are.
As for bargains, they do exist. On a recent visit to Napa's La Toque, which I regard as one of the three finest restaurants in the Napa Valley, I made my thumb land on a 10-year-old Chapoutier Hermitage listed at a remarkably low price.
I asked the sommelier why the price was so attractive, thinking perhaps the bottles had been damaged. No, he assured me, the bottles were fine.
"I think it's a mistake," he said.
"Great," I replied. "I'll take it."
So there you have it. Go out, keep your wits about you, and have fun. You just might be the salvation of your favorite restaurant!
Editor's Note: This column was written originally for the Creators Syndicate and inspired such an outpouring of reader mail that we felt compelled to share it with our readers here at Wine Review Online.