Thursday, February 17, 2011

Steakhouses, the Republican Congress, and retirement

I ran into a sommelier friend recently who is now working at an upscale steakhouse; I won't say where, or he'd lose his job. He told me how the wine scene is different there.

"People don't want a good wine that's good value," he said. "They always want more. They want wines to show off. It has to be a trophy wine: big name, big score or both. They want to feel like they're getting away with something."

I thought he might mean a bargain; a $100 wine for $50. But no, he said people come to steakhouses expecting to spend money. Often, they're on business, which means they're passing the cost on to you and me eventually. That explains why they're willing to spend $10 for a baked potato or $50 for dessert. So what's another $500 or so for wine, especially if you get three whole bottles?

He painted a picture of upscale steakhouses as kind of a mini-Vegas of profligacy.

"People order 6 bottles for four people all the time," he said. "They don't want to finish the bottle. That would mean they didn't get enough. It's the same thing with steak: they don't order a sensible piece of meat they could finish. They order an enormous steak and eat less than half of it. Excess is all part of the party."

So what is it they want to get away with?

"They want to have something their neighbor hasn't had, so they can brag about it," he said. "Depending on the crowd, it might be a 98-point wine, or it might be an impossible-to-get single-vineyard wine. It doesn't matter if they like it or not, it's all about bragging rights."

The good news for the wine industry is, steakhouses sell a lot of bottles at high prices.

Is there bad news? I don't know. If you're reading this in horror -- I was taken aback at this peek behind the curtain -- it's comforting to realize you probably don't want those wines anyway.


On Valentine's Day, wine, spirits and beer producers came together in what might be an unprecedented way to ask Congress not to listen to monopoly-seeking wholesalers.

Every member of Congress got a letter opposing HR 5034, the "CARE act," which would eliminate federal oversight of state liquor laws. This is a bad idea because beer distributors are the players with the most money to spread around to politicians, and money is even more effective at getting laws changed at the state level.

Of course, Congress is far from immune to its votes being bought, which is why the bill had 153 co-sponsors last year.

It's an easy bill for Congressmen of both parties to support sanctimoniously while having their hands greased; they can claim they're for states' rights and for preventing alcohol getting into the hands of minors. But since those are solid Republican talking points, the bill seems on the surface to have a better chance of passing now that the Republicans hold the House.

The letter, which was signed by leaders of the Wine Institute, Wine America, Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the Beer Institute, the Brewers Association and the National Association of Beverage Importers, seems aware of that.

The letter doesn't really try to pound home the case that it's a bad bill, though it does say "Over 4,000 state alcohol beverage laws are on the books, clear proof that state regulation of alcohol is intact and meaningful." Its main point, at the conclusion, is this (italics are mine): "We do not believe that Congress should spend valuable time wading into an intra-industry squabble and unraveling a successful regulatory structure to the detriment of consumers, the industry, and the federal interest in a fair, competitive, and orderly market for alcohol beverages."

In other words: How's that health care repeal coming along? Finished with cutting $100 billion from the budget yet? What about fixing Social Security?

I have to say, I fear that this Congress might be the one to pass this bill, and I don't think we could expect President Obama, who allowed gene-modified alfalfa to be deregulated, to veto it.

I only write on this topic occasionally and will feel guilty for not doing more if it passes. The man who has done more to keep an eye on this than anyone else is Tom Wark, so I strongly urge keeping an eye on his blog, Fermentation.


Earlier this week I posted some comments on another man's blog suggesting that he find different topics to write about. This caused one of his former co-workers to write his own blog post suggesting that I retire from blogging.

I've never been so flattered! It's like being a major literary figure, or perhaps the head of the Federal Reserve, to have my comments and tweets parsed for relevance. Perhaps, as with Shakespeare, somebody will come up with a theory that I don't really write this blog; I'm just the WASPy-looking front man for a team of sassy African-American women who really love wine and hate stuffiness and hypocrisy. (Editor's note: Word!)

I'll have to be more careful about my comments on baseball sites ("It's a bad signing. They shouldn't have given up the draft pick") now that I know how important I am.

Also, I'd like to announce that I will take the suggestion and will indeed retire from blogging.

Until next week, anyway. See you then.


mary said...

Congratulations on your retirement.

Here is some baseball thing for you:

How do I get invited out with the high rollers at the steakhouses? What's another bottle or two?

kschlach said...

Are you going to the Brett Favre of wine bloggers?

W. Blake Gray said...

Colorado: Yes, send me your phone number and I'll text you some photos. I might use a stunt double, though.

Mary: Brett Favre will take you to a steakhouse. You might have to pay, though.

kschlach said...

Ha! I'm flattered with the offer, but I will not be taking you up on it...

Cabfrancophile said...

It's kind of funny--gov't is often (and rightly so) critiqued for wasteful spending. But it's actually gov't policy on business trips that alcohol is not a reimbursable expense. Not so with "efficient" big business it seems, though I'm sure gov't employees break rules.

I saw a documentary last night on Reagan on HBO--I think you'd appreciate the editorial perspective it offers on Reaganomics and big business.

W. Blake Gray said...

CFP: I'm sure there are exceptions to that, but when I lived abroad I had friends who worked for the government, both the State Department and the Defense Department. They drank cheap, crappy wine. I also had friends who were expat businessmen. I loved getting into their cellars.

David White said...

Blake - I'm surprised you think this bill has a better chance of passing with Republicans in charge. I'm certainly worried about all this support this bill will garner, but it's a motley crew of lawmakers. And "Republican" policy groups (well, free-markert/libertarian groups) are the ones spearheading the charge against this bill.

Some things for you to consider:

The bill, which was literally written by the National Beer Wholesalers Association, was introduced in the House by Jim Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

What worries many analysts who oppose HR 5034 is that it would go through the House Judiciary committee. The ranking member (and former chair) is Democrat John Conyers from Michigan. Tom Wark has stated that Michigan lawmakers are “completely controlled” by wholesalers thanks to campaign contributions.

Don't get wrong - Republicans are bad on this too. New House Speaker John Boehner is the biggest recipient of wholesaler dollars, if my memory is correct. That said, I think we (wine consumers) are better of with Republicans (on this issue) as real Republicans support free trade. And any barriers against trade within the states are a clear violation of the Commerce Clause, and, well, sickening.

The wholesale tier is an artificial, state-backed middleman. There are plenty of good reasons for wineries to use wholesalers, but today, the presence of wholesalers is required by law. It's a state-backed racket, and consumers must start fighting against it.

W. Blake Gray said...

David: Under the previous Democratic leadership, the bill seemed less likely to come up for a vote. Maybe that had less to do with parties than people -- Nancy Pelosi seems more sympathetic to wine producers than John Boehner.

I should be clear that beer wholesaler money corrupts both parties equally. There are plenty of Democrats among last year's sponsors.

But the wholesalers' description of the bill does play more to Republican values than Democrats'. Whether or not that makes a difference, we'll have to see.

David White said...

Blake: I hate defending Republicans so much (I strongly disdain both parties), but the bill WAS introduced in the last Congress, by Democratic Rep. Delahunt.

It has not -- and hopefully won't be -- been introduced in the new, Republican congress. That said, thanks to folks like Mike Thompson, I agree that wine consumers might have been a bit better off under the last Congress.

Also worth noting, the whole "states rights" component to the wholesalers argument is new -- the wholesalers didn't talk so loudly about states rights until the Republicans were in charge.

Chris Parente said...

Tell your anonymous wine friend (assuming based in DC) to check out Ray's the Steaks, though he probably already has. Great experience without all the steak house stuffiness. And a nice wine list with very fair prices. My wife and I had an excellent Paul Autard CNP for $54.