Market researcher Charles Gill speculates that people are switching to beer and cocktails. I thought, is it because of the quality of wines on offer?
So I took a look at the wine lists for Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday and Outback Steakhouse (which crashed my browser), to come up with the wines I will order on my next visit.
The most ambitious list of the four. I love that you can order almost anything in a glass, a bottle or a "quartino" (250 ml, about two glasses worth, and good value on this list.)
Red wines are stronger here. Chianti Classico Riserva Rocca delle Macie would be my call; it's $22 in stores and $37 on this list, a reasonable markup. I'm amazed to see Col d'Orcia Brunello di Montalcino ($47 stores, $75 list) but I wouldn't splurge unless it's an engagement party or something.
For white wine, I'd go with Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling ($10 stores, $29 list), a really good wine that does well in blind tastings with much more expensive Rieslings.
It's an ambitious list, with lots of info about wine pairings, but it's not particularly strong; there's a lot of dross. Tim Hanni MW told me he consulted with the Olive Garden and learned that with 90% of servers, the more training they had, the less wine they sold. I guess that's because it wouldn't take long to want to go beyond this list's confines.
It's Red Lobster, you really should be drinking white wine. This list is not as strong as Olive Garden, and once again my first choice would be Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling ($27 here). That said, a lot of people like Chardonnay with lobster. Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay ($13 stores, $35 here) is usually a little sweet for my taste, but it's well-made and the best choice of the Chards.
If you're having a steak at Red Lobster, J. Lohr Estates Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon ($15 stores, $31 here) is a nice fruit-driven wine and a good value.
You can order everything off this short list by the glass, but unless you're having surf and turf, a full bottle makes more sense. Given the paucity of options, it's not hard to see why wine sales are down here.
I like that you can order either a 5 oz or 8 oz glass of everything here. There are a few interesting options, and I'd probably order by the glass. (Bottle prices listed below; glass prices are reasonable, with most under $10.)
My friend Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling is here ($25, best price yet), and joined in the white column by Simi Sauvignon Blanc ($12 stores, $25 here) and Frei Brothers Chardonnay ($15 stores, $35 here). Hard to go wrong with any of them; that's three whites I'd enjoy by the glass, and that's an evening.
On the red list, Neyers Ranch Merlot is listed at $35 a bottle, which must be some kind of mistake because this is also $35 in stores. There's always a catch; maybe it's an off vintage. But I'd certainly have a glass. If I didn't like it I'd switch to Bonterra Vineyards Zinfandel ($15 bottle, $30 list) or Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz ($12 stores, $25 list).
This is the best list of the four. But Ruby Tuesday's menu is pushing cocktails and beer at the top, with wine as an afterthought. Ruby Tuesday could probably sell more wine if it wanted to, but there's more profit in liquor.
This is the worst list, not helped by a lousy online presentation that doesn't even list prices.
Presumably you want red wine in a steakhouse, and Outback puts cute little boomerangs next to each of its uninteresting Australian wines. This is a shame. Wine Australia ought to have a discussion with Outback about getting some better wines into one of the few restaurants where people are predisposed to order them. I'd rather drink iced tea than any of the Aussie wines, red or white.
Personally I'd order another previous favorite red from this list, J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon from California. I kept thinking about a nice second choice but decided there isn't one, really.
From the whites, my friend Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling is back again! I know what I'd have with the Bloomin' Onion.
Outback has a far more interesting cocktail list; it's no wonder wine sales are down.
The good news is that it's possible to get a good bottle of wine at a reasonable price at each of these four casual restaurant chains. Kudos to the sales teams for Chateau Ste Michelle and J. Lohr for keeping things happy for the occasional enophile who comes in.
The only one of these restaurant chains that seems to be emphasizing wine is Olive Garden, and I wonder if sales are down because it's a little too pushy about getting your selection "right" without having the wines to back it up.