Today, I’ll use reader comments in order to explore some challenges to the health of our little wine culture here in southern Maine.

My hope is that you’ll come away from the following remarks feeling that you’re not alone, and that your own curiosity and investment in wine will be most highly rewarded if you actively push your friends, restaurant servers and retailers to treat wine less as a passively traded commodity and more as a pathway to rich experience.

Let’s start with restaurants. The typical markup there is twice the price of retail. This sounds like a mugging, but if you really pored over a restaurant’s books, you’d see how much pressure it’s under to slim costs on absolutely everything, and most owners will tell you their only breathing room comes when pricing alcohol.

This isn’t an excuse to gouge, but it’s the reason prices are what they are. Changing it would entail changing the entire cost structure of preparing and serving food.

A reader wishing to remain anonymous wrote in to criticize not the markup precisely, but the way obfuscation is used to direct diners to pay more than they should.

“You and I both know one shouldn’t have to spend $100 for a good bottle of wine,” he wrote, “and feel that if you opt for ‘cheaper’ bottles you’re settling for second best. I know there are many great wines which retail for $25, but where are the good $50 wines on lists?”


There are some, really, at a few restaurants that I hope to name in a future column. This leads directly into a discussion of which wines restaurants should be pushing because an overwhelming majority of diners think they need to follow names — Bordeaux, Napa, Montrachet, etc. — in order to be assured high quality.

First of all, as a wine seller, I know of several excellent Bordeaux, Burgundies, Nebbiolos and even a Napa Cabernet or two retailing for under $20; in a restaurant, they’d be under $40. (Naming these wines is a subject for another future column.)

Still, generally the action is elsewhere. Alto Adige; Loire and cru Beaujolais; Willamette, Galicia and many younger producers from Ribera del Duero; Toro; Sonoma; Austrian gemischter satz and more structured Gruner Veltliners; many German Rieslings; Chilean Carmenere; and southwestern Australia — those are just an off-the-top-of-my-head-in-35-seconds sliver of some thrilling wine categories. And they’re available right now in many good to great restaurants in the Portland area for under $50.

How to find them? Diners should get past their preconceptions of which wines can be “great.” Go past the names, familiar or not, and ask questions. It’s not necessary to come to dinner loaded with information. Rather, ask questions of the server and be willing to take risks.

On the other side, Portland-area servers need to earn that trust. There are exceptions, of course, but most servers around here, no matter how kind and attentive (usually they’re extremely both), display an embarrassingly impoverished understanding of wine’s relationship to food.

An area wine salesman I’ll keep anonymous writes of at least one restaurant blowing through gallons of an obscure, delightful Loire blend and an even more obscure (and for me, more delightful) Jura red. Why? Because he got a smart restaurant wine buyer in southern Maine behind the wines, and she takes it on herself to sample the wines for her staff and discuss the wines’ connections with the restaurant’s food.


As Davine Wines’ David Joseph put it, “Restaurants need to take an active role in requiring staff to learn about wine and the wines on their lists.”

You wine buyers, look deep inside: Are you putting really cool wines on your lists and then hiding them there, a geeky insider handshake, while the passive, ignorant servers continue selling that Veneto Pinot Grigio glass-pour you have a great margin on? Or are you truly committed to this thing heart and soul, and ready to do whatever’s necessary to turn diners on to the excitement in the wines you love?

Wine lists themselves can improve as well. Tim Wisseman of Mariner Wines told me lists “should be more descriptive and provide technical descriptions of the wines rather than just listing them.” I’ll add to this a vote for more personal, conversational, risk-taking descriptions of wines. (Check out New York City’s incomparable Terroir’s lists for the superlative example.)

As Ned Swain of Devenish Wines put it, let’s have “more handmade wines that taste like where they come from. We have such high standards for food here. People care about organic, local, which farm produced their radishes It’s crazy to go buy great fresh produce at the farmers market and then drink some chemical-laden, artificially flavored wine from the supermarket with it.”


Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog,, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at:


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