Navigating a restaurant wine list can be daunting and, for savvy wine shoppes, a frustrating trip down sticker shock alley.

First, about those prices.

Restauranteurs generally charge two to three times wholesale bottle cost for a bottle of wine. This is a cash of delivery industry, so all those bottles you see in a restaurant’s cellar wall have been bought and paid for – that’s a wall of cash to a restaurant owner. They invested money on the chance that you will buy their choices and charge a premium, kinda like earning interest, on their cash, er, wine.

That mark–up also covers the wine storage footprint – the space being used for storage that could be used for tables has to pay its way.

Disappointingly, some restauranteurs choose to charge an even higher price, gambling that you won’t know better.

Those are the places where I order sweet tea.

The good news for consumers is that with the current glut of wine, wholesale prices are dropping for some labels, and wine heavy restauranteurs are willing to work in slimmer margins.

But how to pick that just-right bottle? A handful of fine dining restaurants have talented staff who know their way around the wine list. Otherwise, you’re on your own.

I tend to look for wines that I don’t see on retail shelves – it’s another way I can experience a new wine, broaden my palate and gain access to wine that may only be available to restaurants. Here’s one to put on your look out list.

Stewart Cellars General Manager James Stewart made the cover of Entrepreneur magazine when he was 29, last year. He’s among a new breed of California winemakers who don’t own expensive vineyards and show–stopping tasting facilities. His family–owned business is about making the best juice possible, using the best grapes available with advice from the best in the business.

World–renowned oenologist Paul Hobbs guides the winemaking and has the luxury of choosing fruit from some of the most sought after blocks of Napa vineyards: Beckstoffer and Stagecoach. Premium Russian River Gibson Vineyard has, since the 2003 vintage, been the sole source for Pinot Noir.

It’s the perfect choice for the grape, which is such a mirror of its terroir.

Stewart 2006 Pinot Noir delivers the silky mouthfeel and elegance  expected from a premium Pinot. Aromas as distinctive of Bing cherries and strawberries meld with peppery spice, cloves and a tantalizing hint of lavender. On the palate, the soft red fruits become apparent, and are layered with the influence of some new French oak and its toasty vanilla traits. The finish lingers and leaves your taste buds watering in anticipation of another sip.

At around $35 retail (Savannah Market) and around $75 on restaurant lists, this is a special wine meant for savoring.

You can experience the Stewart skills and great juices in its other label, too.

Slingshot 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon sells for around $13 (Habersham Beverage) and is a ready to drink Cab with soft tannins, berry and black cherry flavors and hints of vanilla and herbs. It’s all Cabernet, all Napa fruit and made by former Merryvale Vineyards winemaker Stephen Test. The wine is enjoyable now, but has enough character to cellar for a few years.


About The Author

Tim Rutherford

Tim Rutherford

Tim Rutherford grew up in rural Kentucky – then left home to pursue more than three decades as a photojournalist and newsman. A ground-breaking meal in New Orleans in 1979 set him on a path exploring food and wine. Six years ago he changed career paths – now spending his time writing about the people and places... more

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