Tonight at Ric’s Grill, a forty-dollar per steak steakhouse in Kamloops, my wife and I browsed a wine list and chatted with friends. Our friends ordered a bottle of California zin that we were not sold on; we had tried a previous vintage and found it overly punchy and poorly integrated. The conversation shifted a little when, after browsing for fifteen or twenty minutes, my wife and I couldn’t find a wine we wanted to order.
One of our friends at the table, a wine enthusiast from Kelowna, began talking about the greatness of BC wine. We nodded in agreement keen to talk about some of our favorite wineries in the Okanagan – Painted Rock, Foxtrot, Cedar Creek, Sandhill’s Small Lots… “Wouldn’t it be great to see a few more great local wines in local restaurants?” we proposed. Everyone at the table agreed. It’s a matter of local pride. It’s a matter of supporting local economies and businesses that we care about. It’s not a hard sentiment to agree with if the wines are enjoyable.
After debating over the wine list, and deciding we weren’t going to order wine, since the only two things on the list we were interested in tasting ended up being out of stock (Note to restaurants: update your wine lists or keep things in stock), we decided to drink beer instead. Luckily, there were a few locally brewed ales on tap.
With our healthy and hedonistic appetites, by the time we got around to ordering our meals we were quite hungry and eager for the food to arrive. We had heard good things from some people at our table who had eaten at Ric’s before, and our server praised the food quality at the restaurant and recommended two dishes to us. We each ordered one of the two and our soon food arrived. The lobster and crab may well have been made out of actual rubber. I could barely chew through it, and when I did I was left with a slimy dirty tasteless gum deposited throughout the flesh of my mouth and in my teeth.
Both my wife and I ordered surf and turf type meals, forgetting for a minute that just because a restaurant charges more, it doesn’t mean that the fish is ordered fresh daily, or even bi-weekly as seemed to be the case at this restaurant. The steak was chewy and flavorless. I ordered mine rare, and my wife ordered hers medium rare. They both came somewhere between medium-well and well done. My stuffed baked potato tasted as though it was cooked over burning asparagus. My shrimp and crab in cognac sauce had zero seafood taste. My wife could hardly even stand the smell of her plate. I know that wrinkled up nose look well. When I asked her what she thought she said, “Well, the rice is okay.”
For the sake of the argument I will over simplify my thoughts on the evening. I’ll say that there are two schools of thought in restaurant management. The first is all about having an eye for detail. Portions are smaller and the food prices are higher. This is because the customers understand that they are paying for the freshest ingredients and the most talented chefs, while the restaurateurs pay more for those ingredients and those talented chefs while still doing their best to cover rent for a prime location, the best china, often seating fewer people over the course of a dinner rush, and making diners feel like royalty at ever turn. This means that there has to be sufficient markup on the exquisite food to ensure the profitability of the enterprise.
Having worked in the restaurant industry, spoken to a number of owners and employees about this dynamic, and having crunched a few numbers myself, I’ll just say trust me, those prices which many people don’t trust, barely make having a restaurant like this profitable. The market and consumers will only bear certain costs. If you want to make easy money, a high-end restaurant is probably the last business you want to open. This attention to detail oriented restaurant was not the kind of restaurant that we were in.
The second kind of restaurant – and again this is an over simplification – has a go big or go home philosophy. A few people ordered ribs at our table. The ribs came on a foot long plate that could barely hold them – think Fred Flintstone. Dry, boney, fluorescent red, tasteless ribs styled with the fallacy of bigger = better. I see a couple of problems here. To make this kind of dining profitable for the restaurant there is a cost cutting formula that is commonly employed. Big shipments of less fresh products are stored for longer periods of time, slathered in cheap sauces to disguise the taste and are cooked by inexperienced chefs who defaulted into the career rather than being led by passion for, or sometimes even interest in, food. Less attention is paid to the details. Corporate headquarters often set these restaurant’s themes, menus and the shipping dates without attention to much of anything but cost. There is also significant variation between managers’ approach to cleanliness in such enterprises. An example of what I mean – my brother in-law once worked at a pizza kitchen chain that had flooding sewage on the floor in the kitchen while they served big cheesy pizzas. His manager, apparently thought that although the sewage was a temporary annoyance, this was just fine. The formula amounts to something like, who cares what we serve so long as we have a steep return on investment.
The dining public is not totally uninformed. Diners with only pocket change left in the world still have taste. Hunger often facilitates specific tastes, and definitely makes decent or great food taste better. Remember that roommate who found six day old takeout and powered through it exclaiming, “This is amazing, what do you think they put in this?” Some corporate headquarters do better at enforcing standards, planning menus and putting fresh ingredients on the plate. Some beginning chefs have great talent. My wife and I however, were not dining in that kind of place.
The rest of our table ordered a couple of bottles of wine, while my wife and I opted out of wine for the entire evening. With a few less than ideal (some non-VQA) BC wines on the list I began to worry that I had offended our friends who are enthusiastic supporters of BC wine. I do like to support BC wineries, but there are a few who produce quite a large variety of wines of significantly varied quality, and the BC wines on this list were wines I had tasted recently on tasting tours. I happened to know that these wines were bottom of the barrel wines, and I wasn’t excited to pay 200% markup for them.
To illustrate how I felt about the wine list, let me return to my over simplified dichotomy. Many of the best vineyards world-wide are not producing heaps and heaps of wine. In fact, there is a direct relationship between crop yield and the intentions of a winemaker – selecting only the best grapes improves the wine, lowers the total yield of a vintage, and increases the value of the wine. The amount of time spent on each vine goes up since crop thinning requires regular delicate maintenance and crop thinning in a climate like BC ensures that grapes ripen fully. The attention given to pruning leaves, dropping fruit, and growing vines is a meticulous endeavor, especially when you are creating masterful wine. The planning, planting and growing of vines takes a minimum of three years to produce wine in itself.
Even cork is a consideration – cork is expensive, but a longer cork means less oxygen sits in the bottle with the wine – this means that each bottle of wine has a better chance of improving slowly as it waits in the vineyards cellar or restaurant cellar. Cellar time also means a great deal in terms of cost. Not every grape is meant to mature over a decade, but several are much better when they do.
The tannins in a big Cabernet Sauvignon focused blend, or wine of another similar varietal, require at least a few years in barrel and bottle before they soften into peak form. That means that either the vineyard or the restaurant must pay for the storage of these superior and aging wines. In relation to the cellaring time, the wine’s tannins must also to be considered. A wine maker must decide whether to purchase state of the art destemming machinery, employ someone with the know how to make a great wine that includes stems, or pay for the labour required to carefully destem. They must also decide to pay for the labour and technology to either press down the must (solids that sit at the top of fermenting juice which give wine its colour and tannins among other things, which allow for longer aging) or cycle the fermenting juice through an expensive, extremely low oxygen system to sink the must without crushing seeds and other solids that produce a different tasting tannin. I will assume that you are with me on the ‘time and attention equals cost’ equation now.
Again, the market and the consumer will only bear a certain cost. The markup of expensive wines in restaurants is almost always significantly lower than the markup of less expensive wines. That means that a vineyard which produces wine of a higher caliber, no matter how much attention they pay to detail, has to keep prices reasonable so that the people selling the wine have a chance to make a profit.
On the other side of the attention/cost equation, there are wines produced with the go big or go home philosophy. In this case a lot of under-ripe berries are left on the vines to maximize yield, which is usually measured in a ratio that indicates the size of the vineyard in relation to the number of tons of berries and therefore liters of wine. Less attention is afforded to fermentation and bottling. Lower costs and a higher volume of wine mean a bigger budget for branding and marketing while also allowing for a pervasive presence in the market – which does its own bit in terms of advertising. Take a look at the amount of Yellowtail or Wolf Blass in a giant purveyor of alcohol like Ontario’s LCBO for example. I have seen LCBO stores with full isles devoted to either brand – they are hard to miss.
This kind of market presence makes buying wine easy. Consumers often feel comfortable buying something that they are familiar with. As a case study in this dynamic lets look outside of the wine world to beer. Anhieser-Busch InBev’s Budweiser claims over 49 % of the American beer market, spends over $800,000,000 a year in advertising, and lines the shelves of virtually every beer store with Bud, Bud Light, Bud Light Lime (they now also line the shelves with Stella Artois and Becks among others) – go big or go home – the thoroughly reinforced ‘easy choice’ can make a brand very successful.
So as long as Canadian consumers can pay less and choose those brands they are comfortable with, the go big or go home philosophy will dominate the market and quality differences will be tolerated. Let me contradict myself for a second. As a recent graduate I am not entirely against this market trend. On a tight budget this trend allows me to pick from a number of inexpensive wines, beers, and restaurants. The dichotomy I have set up is far too simple to form the basis for complex consumer decisions. I love variety, and I love hunting for products that exceed my expectations for the price I pay for them. Also, there are certainly products I splurge on that don’t live up to my expectations. There is more to it than my simple dichotomy. There is nothing wrong with spending less to get a product you want, but I am careful about the products I choose, review and endorse, and as my familiarity with a variety of products and experiences accrues, I become more discerning when it comes to my interests. It’s simple, I know more about what I want, as does anyone who takes the time, energy and when buying stuff, a percentage of their income, to learn what they like.
The spending habits of individual consumers change and thereby change the marketplace. Macleans Magazine reported that Canadians consumed 22.5 per cent more wine between 2005 and 2009, and that wine consumption in Canada is expected to grow another 19 per cent by 2014. As Canadians drink more wine, individual consumers will become familiar with more brands, more varietals, and different qualities of wine. One night of subtle splurging, one bottle brought to a dinner party, or one trip to a little vineyard that produces elegant small lot wines can change a wine consumer forever. If you can’t afford to spend forty or fifty dollars a bottle, but you know there is something out there that is better than the twelve dollar bottle you usually buy, maybe you will look for a different ten or twelve dollar bottle, or maybe you’ll plan to afford the occasional more pricey bottle.
So here I am sitting in the restaurant which unfortunately falls into neither side of my over simplified dichotomy. It isn’t cheap, and it isn’t good. The wine list actually frustrates me and I am growing steadily aware that our choice to skip wine, when there are BC options on the list, is a little frustrating to our friends. I contemplate explaining the things that are going on in my mind. I love BC wine, especially wine from those places that are producing award winning vintages along side old world wines that have been cherished for generations – who are doing so through attention to detail – who demonstrate their passion for making a great product – who have goals other than turning a big profit. However, I am making somewhere between $40,000 and $999,000 less per year than my dinner companions, and I am feeling disinclined to appear to be lecturing on taste, however pro-BC-wine my intentions might actually be, and however happy I am that they are enjoying their meals.
I simply get up to find the washroom, and in my oh so Canadian way, apologize to the waitress for pulling her aside, apologize for my wife and I not liking any of the food on either of our plates, apologize for covertly talking with her so as to not disturb our friends enjoyment, and silently hold my breath to see if she is pissed off or (hopefully) concerned that the restaurant is serving what is quite possibly toxic seafood. Thankfully, she offers to get us something else and sincerely apologizes, and when she sees that my wife and I have lost our appetites, she doesn’t hesitate to take our dinners off of the final bill. If nothing else on this occasion, Ric’s Grill has got one thing right, keep your serving staff happy enough that they are sincerely concerned about the food and the restaurant’s reputation and offer genuine customer service, even if their food is missing the mark.