Manhattan Merlot Mystery: Why Is Wine So Pricey?

On one of the first warm days of spring, I slipped out of my office to buy a bottle of wine for a dinner party. I didn’t have much time, so I ducked into the closest wine store, on 57th and First, and headed to the Bordeaux section looking for something familiar. Château Simard, a safe bet. I reached for the bottle but snatched my hand back when I saw the price tag. It’s not that I was unaccustomed to spending $35 for a bottle of wine. But I had bought the same wine for $23 at another wine shop only a month earlier. And while I’m used to hefty markups at restaurants, I’m not prepared to get bilked by my neighborhood wine store.

I was the only customer, and the manager came over and asked me if I needed assistance.

I tried to be tactful.

“I’ve had the Simard before and enjoyed it, but when I had it last I think the price was closer to $20.”

“Well, it’s a popular wine, and prices have gone up, I’m afraid,” he said. “For something at that price point, I’d suggest the Château Labat. It’s one of our weekly selections.”

Indeed, I recognized the Labat. I had bought a bottle somewhere else for $15—not $22, as it was marked here—the previous week.

I walked out empty-handed. Briefly, I considered printing out a list of prices from other stores and returning to confront the manager. But what would be the point? I’d had similar experiences at wine establishments all over New York.

If you ask me, wine producers, writers and aficionados focus on the wrong numbers with their 100-point scales. The wine world doesn’t need another Robert Parker; it needs a Ralph Nader, someone to expose the pricing shenanigans on display alongside all those bottles of Chardonnay.

I don’t know if I’m the right person for the job, though. After all, until a year ago, you’d be hard-pressed (so to speak) to find a wine bottle in my apartment. I couldn’t have cared less what someone was charging for a bottle of Burgundy. I hated wine—its taste, the way it stained my teeth and the silly adjectives people used to describe it. Now I have a wine fridge, have been known to post on critic Eric Asimov’s New York Times blog, “The Pour,” and haunt the city’s wine stores like a deranged Howard Beale.

What happened?

I’m still not sure, but I know who’s to blame.

About 18 months ago, not long after I moved to New York, I reunited with my friend Daniel. In college we weren’t particularly close, but a friendship grew from our e-mail correspondence over the years. Our lives were completely different. I was living in the Middle East, studying and writing, drinking and carousing, scrambling to pay the next month’s rent. (Say what you will about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but the Palestinians make better beer.) Daniel was an investment banker with a wife and spectacular view from Trump Place. He envied my freedom; I envied his paycheck.

I wanted to take Daniel to one of my favorite BYOB restaurants, called A, near Columbia University. But first we met up for a beer.

I had been a beer guy ever since I took my first sip in high school. Back then, the point was to get drunk, and any beer would do. We drank cheap swill and had our obligatory suburbanite malt-liquor phase.

But in college, my taste evolved. We threw parties with kegs of porter. When I moved to Manhattan, I became a regular at d.b.a., an East Village brewpub, and sought out the city’s Belgian bars for Trappist ales and lambics. I would have been happy with a six-pack of either for our dinner at A.

Instead, Daniel insisted on buying a nice bottle of wine. We walked out of two wine stores before a third was deemed acceptable. “Let’s splurge,” he said, inspecting the selection. He wasn’t showing off, just wanting to indulge an old friend—and himself. Daniel settled on a $150 bottle of Opus One.

It was sublime.

Unlike other wine I had tasted—the wine equivalent of Busch Light Draft, I’ve come to realize—this had none of the acidity, the thin, dry aftertaste that left me clicking my tongue against the roof of my mouth. No, this was full and rich, with a bouquet (yes) of flavors that only revealed themselves long after the first sip.

I am not religious; my soul is not open to conversion—only my palate. And as far as the tongue goes, I was born again.

There was just one problem: I don’t have Daniel’s generous expense account. So I scour the city for bargains. Of course, you don’t need to spend $150 or even $50 for a great bottle of wine. I’ve found very enjoyable wines for less than $10, mostly from Spain and Italy. (Try a Las Rocas Garnacha or Di Majo Norante Sangiovese.)

But it bothers me that, for all my pavement pounding and Internet surfing, I cannot provide a definitive answer to which wine store has the best prices. To be sure, the giants—Sherry-Lehmann, Astor Wines, PJ Wine, among others—typically offer better deals than the small, neighborhood joints. But not always. And prices also vary markedly among the larger stores, depending on the bottle.

For instance, say you wanted another California fruit bomb, the 2002 Caymus Cabernet Special Selection. Morrell Wine offers it for $150, 67 Wine for $130. The disparities are not only among expensive bottles. A 2004 Yellow Tail Shiraz costs $11 at Astor Wines and $6.50 at Sherry-Lehmann.

Recently, I asked Sherry-Lehmann’s chairman, Michael Aaron, to explain the price discrepancies among the city’s stores.

Each wine store has its “loss leaders,” he said. Stores mark down particular bottles and advertise the low prices, hoping to lure in customers. “For a store like ours, which sells thousands of different bottles, it’s impossible to have the lowest price every time.”

I like Sherry-Lehmann and buy a lot of wine there. Still, for that special occasion when only a bottle of 1996 Veuve Clicquot will do, I won’t be going to Sherry-Lehmann. I’ll call up PJ Wine, which sells it for $25 less.

In fact, I’m already chilling some nice champagne deep in the recesses of my wine fridge, saving it for that day when the pricing scheme finally makes sense. Now that’ll be something to celebrate.