Adventures with wine lists, Apiary edition

By Felix Salmon
April 16, 2011
Apiary last night, and I can recommend it: the food is spectacularly good. But, go on a Monday -- free corkage night -- and bring your own wine. Because the wine list -- which the restaurant describes as "well-rounded and approachable" -- is anything but.

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I had dinner at Apiary last night, and I can recommend it: the food is spectacularly good. But, go on a Monday — free corkage night — and bring your own wine. Because the wine list — which the restaurant describes as “well-rounded and approachable” — is anything but.

Apiary is a small restaurant in the East Village; it offers a $35 prix-fixe three-course meal four days a week, and its regular a la carte menu is reasonably priced: appetizers range from $8 to $15, and mains from $22 to $29.

The wine list, by contrast, is an exercise in nosebleed pricing. It has two pages of whites and seven of reds; we fancied red wine last night, so you might think there’s a lot to choose from. But unless you’re happy spending triple-digit sums on your wine, there isn’t.

Of the 165 red wines on the list, just 49 are less than $100 per bottle, while 116 are in triple digits. At the top end, there are 24 different wines which cost more than $300 a bottle. Of the 49 wines under $100, there are exactly 7 under $50, where you’d expect to find wines to pair with a $25 entree. And don’t expect all those seven wines to be available, either. We finished off the Mas Roig, at $53; one recent reviewer at OpenTable said it took three attempts just to find a wine the restaurant hadn’t run out of.

If this is approachable, I fear to think what intimidating might be.

You’re certainly not going to find any bargains here. Take the Argentina/Chile section: there’s a 2009 Huarpe Malbec for $44 which would cost maybe $8 or $9 at retail. Then there’s a 2005 Neyen Carmenere/Cabernet for $111: it would cost you $40-$50 at retail. And finally there’s the 2006 Catena Zapata, which retails for $50-$60. It’s $176 here.

Admittedly, these wines aren’t always easy to find. But the 2007 Etude Pinot Noir can be picked up for $19.99 at Buy-Rite in Jersey City; it’s $84 at Apiary. And even something as exotic as the 1958 Borgogno ($423 at Apiary) is listed at Zachys for $200 a bottle.

In principle, I think it’s wonderful when restaurants have wine lists with a good selection of older vintages and a smattering of real rarities. There’s nothing wrong with a wine list which holds lots of appeal for wine geeks. But that’s no reason to treat the rest of us with haughty indifference.

The message this list sends is that the world of good wine is inaccessible and eye-wateringly expensive, and that anybody spending less than $50 on a bottle of wine is going to find slim pickings indeed. This is exactly the kind of wine list which puts people off wine entirely: the rational thing to do, on looking at it, is to simply order a beer for $8. In no sensible world does a glass of that Huarpe Malbec cost less than a bottle of Chimay Blue — but that’s exactly what you find at Apiary.

No good wine list incentivizes people to avoid wine entirely — which is why it’s fair to say that Apiary does not have a good wine list. It’s certainly “notable”, as various listings sites put it. But not in a particularly good way.


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Kind of surprised you are just finding out restaurants charge for wine about 3x to 5x what you’d pay in a liquor store.
$8 for a beer, mind you, is about 6x what you’d pay in a liquor store.

Posted by RZ0 | Report as abusive

Years back, there was an influential article in the antitrust arena called “[Consumer] Ignorance as a Source of Oligopoly Power.” Substitute “Restaurant Wine List Profits” for oligopoly power and you’ve nailed exactly what’s going on. It will never change. But since Felix seems to be convinced that virtually no consumer can tell the difference between a cheap merlot and La Conseillante anyway, I don’t see why he complains.

Posted by maynardGkeynes | Report as abusive

Personally, I think it’s impossible to get value for money from a NYC wine list. Too much hoo goes into it, and too many people feel angst and are willing to throw money at it.

As usual, I’ll take the opportunity to welcome all discriminating readers to Oregon wine country, but I bet even just heading to say upstate NY would find you some places that have nice wines at unpretentious prices.

Posted by SelenesMom | Report as abusive

Or better yet, continue North to Quebec and eat a fine meal in one of the 268 restaurant where you can always bring your own wine… ures/montreal-byow-bringyourownwine-rest aurants.php?lang=en

Posted by hsvkitty | Report as abusive

They take me often to the North Fork (especially Paumanok) and to the Finger Lakes (especially Standing Stone, Shalestone, Hermann Wiemer and Anthony Road). But even at the Source, NYS wines are beginning to feel overpriced. The locavore foodies are pricing the locabibs out of the market. But even at current price points, They say They are amply repaid in a sense of smug superiority for supporting the local (alleged) economy and for being able to talk knowledgeably about wines that not many have heard of.

@RZO: The issue at a place like Apiary is not 3x retail for a bottle. We all know about that. It’s the lack of reasonably priced choices. Such are easily found elsewhere.


P.S. If in Oregon, hie thee to the Hood Valley Winery. Tiny joint; good pinot noir (the last time They tried it), available only there.

Posted by samadamsthedog | Report as abusive

It seems like the food prices are being subsidized by the expensive wines. The restaurant probably is targeting whale customers, the kind that spend thousands of dollars a month mostly on wine.
Still, whether business acumen is the issue, I’m not sure complaints are justified. Wine is by no means an essential part of a good meal, akin to a dessert course. It may accent flavors or enhance the experience, but a well prepared meal should be able to stand alone. And considering all wine pricing is rather subjective and there is zero correlation between quality and price, it’s silly to excoriate a restaurant because you can get something cheaper elsewhere.
The entire fine dining experience is overpriced if you broke it down based to supplier pricing. A $29 entree can be eye-wateringly expensive to someone who knows how to cook and has a decent supermarket nearby.

Posted by thispaceforsale | Report as abusive

Sometimes an $8 bottle of wine is just an $8 bottle of wine but sometimes it is more than that. Especially if you factor in the cost of serving it on Manhattan real estate on a custom made table with artisan servers, lighting oh and food too. Not just food, but art that you can eat. Sometimes a restaurant is a better place to drink your $8 bottle of wine than maybe the bus stop bench in front of your local BEVMO. So either you know the wine is good and marked up to help a resourceful business owner cover the added expense of providing you with a fine dining experience, or your quest for economy may in fact assist in destroying what little economy is left.

Price is the only variable in in the absence of value.

I have never eaten at Apiary, do not live in New York, but do in fact own a business which requires skills that can only be obtained by actually buying $4 bottles of wine, selling them for $8 and obviously adding a hell of a lot of service and expertise along the way.

Posted by AKillion | Report as abusive

@SATD: Locabib! Nice coinage! I will adopt it at once!

Posted by SelenesMom | Report as abusive

@thispace: Until someone corrects me, I’m going to suggest that most restaurants get their highest margins on alcohol and coffee.

Posted by SelenesMom | Report as abusive

Biggest markup is on carbonated beverages. Costs are under a dime. Prices, well, I’m sure you know.


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Posted by traducator daneza romana | Report as abusive