Restaurant Reviews

Sour Grapes

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The Tony's wine class tasting list includes a Chardonnay and a Merlot from Salmon Creek, also a Bronco brand. Last spring Bronco CEO Fred Franzia, nephew of E. & J. Gallo Winery co-founder Ernest Gallo, challenged restaurants to limit wine list markups and sell Salmon Creek wines for less than $10 a bottle after he offered to set a wholesale price of $2.50. Tony's front-line prices on these wines are $35.95 for the Chardonnay and $34.95 for the Merlot, which drop to $11.98 and $11.65 respectively with case discounts.

Yet Monzain insists Salmon Creek is a small-production label in the Bronco portfolio. Bronco doesn't disclose specific case production figures, but a spokesman for the winery said that the big value/price relationship Bronco is seeking with Salmon Creek requires fairly substantial case production levels.

Monzain shakes his head and pulls a 1992 Gallo Northern Sonoma Estate Bottled Chardonnay from his shelf to illustrate. Just 2,025 cases of this $30 suggested-retail-price wine were produced (he says he sells it for between $50 and $60). "This is handmade," he says, presenting the label. "You think the family is going to drink the other stuff?"

Buying wine at Tony's is a little like shopping at a used car lot. Tires are kicked. Drives are tested. Bull is dispensed. The sticker price is marked up. Seemingly sneaky deals are cut. We purchased wine at Tony's on two occasions, assembling bottles for a tasting. (See sidebar, "The Swill-o-Meter.") On the first visit, we let the salesman guide us in building a case of wines from a diversity of regions and varieties. We explained we wanted a price range starting from under $10 up to $25. On the second visit, we purchased five bottles we suspected would have a high probability of defects because of age and deferred to the salesman for the remaining two selections (to qualify for Tony's six bottles with the seventh for a penny deal).

For our case purchase, the salesman offered us tastes of most of the wines he presented but cautioned he would not be able to meet our pricing criteria. "I can help you with ones a little higher up," he said.

Tony's sales pitches are remarkably similar to classroom lore. "I'll give you a quick explanation about...the barrels," the salesman said, giving the mushroom-campfire yarn that explains the differences between wines made from French and American oak barrels.

As he poured a sample of Poppy Hill Cabernet Sauvignon from California, a man slipped from behind the counter and left the store. The salesman paused and smiled. "Now that he's gone, I can do something about the prices," he said. He pulled out a sheet. "Now that he's gone, this is what I can show you. The normal prices are these." He pointed to a column on the left. "I can do it for those prices." He pointed to a column of much lower prices on the right. "But I couldn' it until he was gone, because he's the owner...So I can do you better prices on things. So I was doing it kind of half-heartedly with you."

As we assembled our case, mostly from the wine class tasting list, he stopped to retrieve a special wine: A 2000 Godwin Alexander Valley Merlot. He billed the Godwin as a baby Opus One, the ultra-premium Bordeaux-style wine created via a joint venture between Robert Mondavi of the Robert Mondavi Winery and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Châteaux Mouton-Rothschild. "[Opus One is] a kind of California version of a Merlot, and this I've been told is very, very similar to it," the salesman said. Yet Opus One, which retails for $165 per bottle for the 2002 vintage, is primarily Cabernet Sauvignon--from 80 to 97 percent, depending on the vintage--with just a splash of Merlot. "The reason why it's that expensive is because it's always written up in wine magazines," the salesman said. "And everyone believes what a wine writer says...I don't read wine magazines...Stuff like this, Godwin, that's not written up in wine doesn't need to be written up in wine magazines." He cut us a deal: He slashed the price on the Godwin from $89 to $59 (it has a suggested retail price of $24.99, though some Internet sources list it as high as $28).

We took the Godwin and a rosé from Provence after a strong recommendation from our salesman. To sweeten the purchase, he threw in a couple of free bottles: a 2004 Salmon Creek White Zinfandel and a 1995 Reine Pédauque white Côtes du Rhône. The wines from our second buy were all white, including a 1997 Byington Santa Cruz Mountains California Chardonnay (suggested retail $22, Tony's price $59.95), a 1996 Chehalem Reserve Oregon Pinot Gris (suggested retail $19, Tony's price $34.95) and a 2001 Valley of the Moon California Pinot Blanc (suggested retail $15, Tony's Price $39.95).

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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