With respect to Los Angeles wine list prices, my colleague Besha Rodell appears to be experiencing some sticker shock lately. I don't altogether blame her. L.A.'s wine menus are expensive, and markups are often egregious, especially for popular items you could find in a retail shop for a fraction of the price.
Lately, however, Rodell has noticed a creep on the low end, where $40 is the new $30. She takes the Venice restaurant Gjelina to task for the absence of low-priced wine selections, comparing it with a restaurant in Echo Park, Red Hill, whose offerings on the low end, she finds, are more reasonable.
I think, though, that it's a bit unreasonable to compare wine programs at a wildly popular Abbot Kinney institution and an up and coming Echo Park eatery. Rents on Abbot Kinney no doubt dwarf those in Echo Park for restaurant properties (as must the incomes for their respective residents). You'd be naïve not to expect to pay a premium to dine at the hottest restaurant in Venice Beach — and indeed the food menu prices at Gjelina are noticeably more expensive than at Red Hill (though not exorbitantly so).
But you wouldn't insist that a restaurant lower its food menu prices because the ingredients are so much cheaper at Whole Foods, any more than you'd demand an Echo Park price for a Venice bungalow.
For all this, economics plays just a fractional role here; what's really at play is behavioral science. The truth is the lowest priced wines on the wine list are invariably the poorest sellers. Ask any wine director in the city to corroborate this: The low end is the third rail of American wine programs. Any wine on Gjelina's list priced below $40 would no doubt languish. No matter how good the wine is, it's axiomatic that restaurant patrons avoid the least expensive bottles for fear of looking cheap. (And imagine how that psychology is amplified if you're dining on image-conscious Abbot Kinney.) Instead, Gjelina has a dozen selections below $50 for its guests to choose from, all sort of lumped together in price so that no 'cheapest' wine really announces itself.
Gjelina's wine list is very good — a tad pricey, perhaps, but not outrageous (there are, in fact, very good deals on the high end). A highly curated list like this one takes time, work, and effort to assemble, and should be compensated for. When's the last time you had a Petite Arvine from the Valle d'Aosta? How likely are you to go to your retailer and ask for one without having had someone to guide you there? (And what are the odds they've got it? Pretty much nil.)
There's a limit of course as to how much you'll spend to indulge a sommelier's arcane explorations, just as there's a limit to how much you're willing to be gouged. But the point is you're paying for an experience; and if you waste part of that experience worrying over $10, then certainly you're missing something.
Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.