Why are restaurants’ cheapest bottles of wine becoming so expensive?

In matters of wine, I am not Withnail. I do not crave “the finest wines available to humanity”. I merely want something drinkable from the cheap end of the list which won’t get me in trouble with the editor approving my expenses. It is not only about avoiding confrontation. I also hold that, while paddling about in the shallower waters of that list, I should not be made to feel like a second-class citizen. The opening price should be welcoming.

In my latest restaurant review I shine a spotlight on an egregious example of the exact opposite; on wine pricing that will punch the very breath out of any reasonable person. It is, thankfully, an outlier. But it does raise wider questions about the whole approach to wine pricing and more importantly, the entry point. In my reviews I always list the price of the cheapest bottle. You can tell an enormous amount about a restaurant from that one detail. Those which have bottles for around £20 or less are simply more welcoming than those where the cheapest starts at £30. Recently, I’ve noticed a significant increase in the latter. I loved the food at Humble Chicken; the £30 wine entry point, far less so. Ditto the £32 charged at the restaurant Sussex.

Am I now contradicting myself? Recently I said that we’ll have to pay more in restaurants if we want them to be viable? No. I still hold by that. When I hear about bottles marked up by a factor of three I don’t blanch. Restaurants have costs to cover. The problem is that, by not having something at a welcoming price to begin, even with a triple mark-up, all they are doing is frightening away those who in the long term are going to be part of the solution.

Restaurateurs say low entry points will encourage people to spend less. That’s not true at all. The moneyed who love their wines, who see themselves as a certain type of drinker, don’t suddenly trade down because there’s a £20 bottle on the list. But those on a budget will feel it’s somewhere that also wants their custom. And when they’ve got a bit more money, they’ll start exploring the upper reaches.

Some people complain that my cheapest bottle metric is reductive; that it grossly simplifies the complex joys of wine. These complaints always come from those earning their living from wine: they are sommeliers or wine writers. They never come from diners. Diners complain about wine lists apparently designed to be read only by those who have cracked the code. They complain about unreasonable mark-ups. It seems ludicrous to be saying it in 2021, but far too many wine lists still come across as grossly exclusive. And price remains the most obvious way by which to raise the barricades.

There are exceptions. The two Noble Rot restaurants, which grew out of the most gloriously accessible of wine publications, have huge lists pirouetting up in price to four figures a bottle. But they open at £22 and have great choice below £30. Plus, they have an enlightened approach to wines by the glass enabling experimentation on a budget. It can be done. If Lidl can offer a great Gavi for £6.99, or Aldi, a cracking Malbec for £5.79, it should not be beyond the wit of restaurants buying wholesale to have a few bottles which won’t terrify those of more slender means. When checking out a restaurant online we tend to judge a place by the food menu prices. We rarely look at the wine list and we should. Because all too often, that’s where the real terrors lie.