by Jake Lorenzo
On New Year’s Eve morning Jake Lorenzo took a stroll down to Highway 12 to visit Jakelyn’s mom’s garden. Five of the half-barrel planters I had cut for her were strewn across the highway, cars weaving around them like drivers at Infinion Raceway. I dragged the planters to the side of the road and visited the mounds of gravel piled along the fence where I picked my blackberries and mounded all the way to the creek. Giant shards of familiar pottery dotted the roadside, but there was no sign of the plants or the smaller statuary that had once graced our backyard.
The infamous New Year’s storm of 2005 capped a horrific year of natural disasters and wreaked havoc on our garden. The churning, white-capped rapids ran through our yard for hours slowly rising to the topmost step on our porch, but never entered our home. The waters knocked out three sections of our fence and dragged planters, gravel and pots more than 200 yards to the highway, but they stayed out of our house.
Funny thing about natural disasters: once the wind stops blowing, the ground stops shaking and the water starts receding, survivors go through a series of stages. At first, there’s a stunned, numb feeling caused by the sheer force of destructive power. Sooner or later that dissipates and we start to rebuild our homes and our lives. But somewhere in that process we get pissed off. We get angry. We get mad. Sometimes that anger just sits, rumbling quietly like a sleeping volcano waiting for something to set it off.
Well, since Jake Lorenzo just lost a garden and not a house, I suppose that’s why my anger wasn’t too virulent. I’m not throwing empty wine bottles at FEMA officials and I’m not picketing county officials. In fact, Jake Lorenzo thought he was free and clear of the anger issue until I took Jakelyn’s mom out for a nice meal to try to perk her up after she spent a day picking through the ruins of her garden. We sat at our table, briefly conversed with the owner and then checked the wine list.
That’s when Jake Lorenzo’s pent up anger spewed. Like a volcano lighting up the night, I was all over the waiter and the owner and anyone who would listen. The cheapest wine on the list was $28 and that was the only one under $30. It was also something Jake Lorenzo wouldn’t drink unless someone was paying me a large consultant’s fee to determine how it could be improved. There were more than 100 wines on the list at an average price of about $52. This at a local, neighborhood Sonoma eatery.
Our night was ruined. I couldn’t calm down and Jakelyn’s mom was incensed that I was so bothered. “You’ve seen this before. Just order a beer and let it slide.” I ordered the beer, but I’ll be damned if I’m letting it slide this time. I’m fed up with these ridiculous wine list prices and I’m not going to take it anymore.
I went home and called an emergency meeting of the Wine Patrol. Chuy and Iggy and Jim McCullough showed up and we railed against the sad state of wine lists. We spent most of the night sipping wines from my cellar and planning a strategy. We took a late night break for a visit to the burrito wagon, before we finished around three in the morning.
You need to know, Jake Lorenzo is not a glass-half-empty kind of guy. I’ve led a charmed, happy life and I try to avoid as much negativity as possible. That’s not to say when I see a wine crime I will stand idly by and let it happen. Most restaurants charge way too much for a bottle of wine. When I can scrape together enough cash for a fine meal, good wine accompanying that meal is essential to making it a fine dining experience. Inflated wine prices take the pleasure out of that dining experience every time.
Why do restaurants charge so much, often three to four times the bottle cost? Because they can, because everyone else does and because we let them.
Well, no more. The Wine Patrol is pleased to announce its Wine Patrol Approved List (WinePAL) program. The Wine Patrol will start deputizing people on St, Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2006. Deputies will have packets of cards depicting the Wine Patrol logo and your status as a deputy on one side. The other side will list our mission statement explaining to restaurateurs the requirements for achieving the WinePAL approval and directing them to our web site to get details of our program.
When dining at a fine restaurant, one with wine prices in the stratosphere, simply leave a card when you pay the bill. If we get enough deputies to leave enough cards, restaurant owners will listen. Restaurant owners will scream that they have to charge these outlandish prices. That’s a crock. They don’t charge like that in Europe. The people would never stand for it. We shouldn’t either.
If you want to see how it’s done, go to Florida and visit Captain Charlie’s Reef Grill where owner Ross Mathison has been knocking them dead for years. Every wine on Ross’ list is priced at just $10 more than he paid for it. At Captain Charlie’s, the more expensive the wine, the better deal you get. Corkage is $10 per bottle. Ross says, “I run a restaurant. I make money on food, but I love wine and I think the dining experience is better when my customers drink wine. If I make $10 profit on every bottle, I’m happy and so are my customers.” That’s why there are lines out the door most nights. Captain Charlie’s Reef Grill is WinePAL approved.
Restaurant owners will sneer, “That’s Florida, and this is California.” OK, then take a trip up the Mendocino Coast and visit Meredith Smith’s Mendocino Café. Her well-selected list has 40 wines mostly representing local Mendocino wineries, but with some Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara as well as French, Spanish and Australian dotted about. All but two of the wines are under $30 and more than half are under $25.
This isn’t bargain basement swill. Meredith has searched for, tasted and bargained her way into an extraordinary list. “I take advantage of deals offered by the wineries. I buy lots of the wine and I age it in my cellar. When they go on the list, I take what I paid and double it. That’s it.” Indeed, it’s Handley Estate Chardonnay for $23, Palacios Remondo La Vendemia Rioja for $22 and Andrew Murray Syrah for $28. By the way, corkage is $8 per bottle. The Mendocino Café is WinePAL approved.
We’re not forcing restaurants to change their wine pricing policies, but we insist that they give some thought to their cash-strapped wine-loving clientele. The Wine Patrol thinks that every restaurant wine list should have at least one fine wine under $30 in every category. We think it is reasonable to insist that at least 10 percent of the list is under $30. We prefer that there be no corkage fee, but if there is, keep it at $10 per bottle or less. For each bottle purchased from the list corkage for at least one bottle should be waived.
The Wine Patrol would like to know who is purchasing the wine. Put their name right on the list, so we know who to congratulate or who to blame. We’d like to see creativity, selection and value in the wine-by-the-glass programs. We’d like to see restaurants take advantage of their location here in Wine Country to pass along deals offered by local wineries.
The WinePAL program is in the works. We hope to have our web site up and running by March 1, 2006. Go to www.winepatrol.com and then go to WinePAL. In the near future we will have WinePAL stickers that will be exhibited at restaurants right next to their Zagat ratings. We need deputies. Log onto the site after March 1. We begin deputizing on St Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2006. The Wine Patrol rides again. Get with the program.