Wine prices fluctuate wildly. A bottle of Yellow Tail Shiraz will run you less than $10 at the corner store, while a bottle of Screaming Eagle, a cult Cab, can set you back a few grand—if you can find one.
But these are very different wines. What’s less understandable is how the same bottle of wine can be sold at vastly different prices depending on where you buy it.
For instance, a bottle of Justin Isosceles 2013, a Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Paso Robles, costs $59.99 at Union Square Wine & Spirits, a popular Manhattan wine shop. But order that bottle at Quality Meats, a steak restaurant about 40 blocks to the north, and you’ll pay $189.
This is no aberration. Restaurants often mark up their wines 300 percent above the retail price. (And retailers also mark up the costs, typically 50 percent, of what they pay wholesale distributors.) Critics of such markups see at as an easy way for restaurants to boost profits. But restaurant defenders argue that the higher price for wine when dining out help defray other costs—sommeliers, waiters, elegant stem ware and table cloths, dishwashers—that retail stores don’t have to shoulder.
Still, it’s confounding why the price for wine varies so widely within each category of seller. Why does a bottle of 2008 Vintage Veuve Cliquot champagne cost $79.99 at Sherry-Lehmann, another well-known Manhattan wine store, and $99.97 at Young’s Fine Wines & Spirits on Long Island? And why can you get that same bottle of Justin Isosceles that Quality Meats charges $189 for $117 at Barone’s, an Italian-influenced restaurant in Pleasanton, CA?
Much of this pricing is arbitrary, but retailers and restaurant owners may also mark down prices in the hopes of luring customers, in some cases even offering “loss leaders” to stimulate purchases of other items. And with the ubiquity of the Internet and web comparison tools (wine-searcher.com is one good one), consumers are becoming savvier about the massive fluctuations in wine pricing.
And the best place to buy that Isosceles? It’s probably the restaurant at Justin Winery, where the 2014 vintage sells for $72.