Sunday, September 25, 2011

Happy Hour: Wine Edition

I think that the worst part about being under 21 is that you don't know about, can't enjoy, and aren't invited to happy hour. I think it just might be the holy grail of the twenties. I've certainly spent enough time pursuing half-off appetizers and dirt cheap well drinks, that it could be some sort of religious calling for me. 

Not only have they occupied many a weeknight, happy hours have ruined the full-price dinner for me completely. I find it increasingly difficult to eat at regular restaurants (why are these fries $7 and not $3.50? why are these sliders $3 a piece instead of $1?). And bar drinks are a similar story. It's just not worth it to go out to drink when a mojito costs $9-11 dollars and contains somewhere between half a shot and one ounce of rum. It's even harder when you order a glass of wine, at $8-$12 a glass, you might as well go buy the bottle of wine for $7.99 at a Safeway down the street and drink it in the parking lot. It'd probably save time and money. Wine is the last thing I would order out at a bar and it also seems to be the one thing Happy Hour still can't knock down to a reasonable price. 

I was reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about demystifying the exorbitant mark-ups of wine in restaurants and I feel a bit more clued in about the insane mark-up for glasses of wine. Bottles are another story. The article reasoned that, based on a host of restaurants around New York, that the average restaurant marks up their bottles of wine 300%. Read: a jug of Yellow Tail Chardonnay would be $24 in a restaurant. Yellow Tail aside, it makes great, affordable wines, completely ridiculous to purchase ($30+ for a Chateau Ste. Michelle Pinot Gris? Not tonight). And that's just the bottle price. That same Yellow Tail Chardonnay, in a glass instead of a bottle, would cost $6-$7... or, the exact price of a jug of that wine in grocery stores. 

It upsets me to say this, but this price insanity is actually driven by logic. When a customer orders that glass of Yellow Tail Chardonnay, the bottle must be opened and a small amount of the wine poured out. Once opened, the wine's shelf life drops rapidly (two to three days, at the most). If no one else walks into that restaurant and also orders a glass of that white wine, then the bottle is ruined and the restaurant will immediately face a loss. Hence the mark-up. That one glass had better at least help the restauranteer break even...

With this all being said, I was skeptical when a colleague at work suggested a place that had half-off bottles of wine on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Without a wine list and wine prices published online (this helps restaurants protect themselves from snooping customers looking to determine which wines are marked up the most, as well as snooping competitors gauging how much they can sell their wine for), and never having ordered a bottle of wine at a restaurant, I decided to try it out. When I arrived there for a late-night happy hour with friends, the place (Maxwell's) looked closed, but pushing open the door, we were greeted by an intimate restaurant with a glittering chandelier and a crackling fire. The bar was small and though it wasn't crowded, almost everyone had a bottle of wine at their table and a whole host of the appetizers that were also half-off. The wine list was large and exciting. Most of the bottles were ones I hadn't heard of and hadn't seen in store. Even better... they had bottles of wine under $30. And at the happy hour special, those wines were half-off. Such a major discount actually brought the marked-up wines down to a reasonable price, normally a dollar or two over the price in stores.

I ordered a 2010 Leyda Pinot Noir Classic from Chile ($13.99 retail, $15 with the happy hour discount at Maxwells). The wine was absolutely beautiful in color, a sparkling bright burgundy that was so clear that you could see the light reflecting in and out of the glass. It was very full of berry notes for a Pinot Noir, but it maintained the softness and lightness of some of the great Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs. The bouquet was sweet and reminded me of a Riesling or a sweeter white wine. The front notes were of berries, notably blackberries and strawberry and the sweetness developed into a smooth and minerally finish, with a hint of spice. The wine lingered, but only delicately, and it showed no heaviness or jammy-ness of some of the other less expensive Pinot Noirs I've tried. I would definitely recommend this wine and the restaurant (and I suppose the entire notion of happy hour) for both beating my expectations and god-awful wine list mark-ups.

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