Perhaps by now you have heard about Joe Lentini, the New Jersey man who ordered, allegedly by accident, a bottle of one of the world’s priciest wines at Bobby Flay Steak in the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City.
Upon first hearing this story, I thought it might be an urban legend akin to the one periodically circulates about Neiman Marcus charging a customer $250 for a chocolate chip cookie recipe.
Though somewhat suspicious, Lentini did actually order a $3,750 bottle of 2011 Screaming Eagle, a California cabernet-based wine, thinking he was ordering a $37.50 bottle.
Lentini was asked to order wine for a party of 10, though admittedly he knew little about wine. Why did he agree to take on this task even though he did not have his glasses and therefore could not see prices on the restaurant’s 26-page wine list?
Lentini says he ordered Screaming Eagle on the server’s recommendation. When he asked the price of the wine, he alleges the server answered “thirty-seven fifty,” not “three thousand seven hundred and fifty.”
The staff maintains they verified the selection at least two times before the wine was poured, although Lentini maintains all were clueless until the check arrived.
In the restaurant’s defense, even though the wine list is long, it is well organized. Selections in each category are listed from least expensive to most expensive. There is even a section for “Fifty Wines Under Fifty.”
After complaints from Lentini and his party, the manager reduced the price to $2,200, likely still making a profit on a bottle that retails for an average $1,943.
As we move into the holidays, many will be dining at special dinners in fine dining institutions with comprehensive wine lists. If there is a takeaway from Lentini’s experience, it is that one unfamiliar with wine should by all means ask for recommendations if coerced into making a selection from a list they cannot see.
The right way to order wine
When ordering wine, is incumbent on the customer to provide parameters regarding color, varietal of wine desired and — most importantly — maximum amount they are willing to spend.
Customers should be prepared to pay more for wine in a restaurant. Most fine dining establishments mark up wine two-and-a-half to three times their cost to help mitigate expenses for tableware, wine glasses, tablecloths, fabric napkins and salaries for an army of food handlers and preparers.
Generally, the more expensive and elaborate the restaurant, the more expensive the wine, because wine prices are predicated upon operating costs.
Consider these recommendations for deconstructing a wine list like Flay’s:
Server recommends: Louis Roederer ‘Cristal’ 2006. $625 on Flay’s wine list. That’s “six hundred and twenty-five dollars.” The identical wine at Napa’s toney French Laundry Restaurant goes for $795. At retail locally, the wine sells for $250 per bottle.
If money matters (and when does it not?), order a bottle of Italian Prosecco, a perfectly acceptable bubbly. Flay has one listed for $42.
A Spanish cava or a French cremants (a sparkling wine from France made in regions other than Champagne) are also less expensive but good alternatives to pricey Champagne.
Server recommends: Hanzell 2004 chardonnay for $245 — the most expensive chardonnay on the list.
With glasses on nose, scroll back up the list. Select the third least expensive chardonnay, a Sonoma-Cutrer 2013 Russian River Ranges.
Why the third wine? Restaurant wine people know diners are reluctant to go with the cheapest wine on the list, often opting for the second cheapest wine when, for a few dollars more, a better bottle is to be had.
Server recommends: A $3,750 bottle of Screaming Eagle, the most expensive and last wine listed in this section.
The least expensive bottle in this section is a Ferrari-Carano for $60. Remember that “Fifty Under Fifty” section? There is a BR Cohn Silver Label cabernet for $48, or a Rosenberg zinfandel for the same amount of money.
Though these wines do not carry the cachet of a Screaming Eagle, they should provide a pleasurable experience for the most sophisticated palate — or unsophisticated palate, in Lentini’s case.
Contact Pat Kettles at firstname.lastname@example.org