I really had to distance myself and pause before I responded to Elizabeth Downer’s and Jack Brice’s Tastings column [Gouging by the glass: Pittsburgh restaurants are inflating prices far beyond the industry-accepted models,“ Food & Flavor, May 1]. I felt the article and the comments did not clearly represent both sides. It really made restaurants seem so awful taking advantage of consumers. So just a couple random thoughts of my own.
My disclaimer: I have only been in the restaurant business for 18 years, the last five with a liquor license (Pino’s formerly was BYOB) and I am currently a student of the Wine, Spirit & Education Trust (WSET). I have successfully passed Levels 1 and 2 and I am awaiting the results of the Level 3 exam, which is sent to London for scoring. I am in business with my husband, Joseph Mico, who is our executive chef (fondly known as Pino).
Kevin Zraly has some great ideas and I know local restaurants who use “Windows on the World” as their wine Bible — their wine lists make it obvious. Even so, I encourage my wine-dinner attendees to read the book if they have an interest in wine. It’s a great start. But that book was written over 25 years ago and a lot has changed.
We know many corporate/independent restaurants use the “first glass pays for the bottle” formula, but that’s really dependent on their business operations — we all have overhead expenses to pay for (benefits, multiple levels of management, advertising, taxes, insurance, etc.). Our markups are different because it is OUR BUSINESS. We can’t and we won’t judge others.
When Joe and I go to other restaurants and look at their wine lists we know what they have paid but who are we to question how they conduct THEIR BUSINESS?
We don’t pay their bills, only ours. It’s a free-market system here. You don’t have to buy the glass or the bottle. I always look for something interesting or let the staff choose for me.
At Pino’s, we offer a variety of programs to engage our guests. We have feature-bottle nights on the weekends, right now at $32. That’s just $6.40 per glass with five 5-ounce pours. We offer select half-price wine bottles on certain nights — that’s $3.60 to $5.20 per glass. We even “happy hour” wine glasses Monday through Friday. And we have wine dinners: Ask anyone who attends, they are an amazing combination with Joe’s food and wine collaboration — and so reasonably priced at $55 or $65 for a four-course, sit-down dinner that includes tax and gratuity. This model works for us but is it one-size-fits all? I don’t think so.
At any given moment my wine bar and cellar hold about $15,000 of wine (that’s small change for some restaurants and some personal collections). If something doesn’t move quickly I cannot afford to “sit on the inventory” so I might offer a promotion or incentive. Then there’s the liquor license annual renewal, invoices for glassware, time for staff training (on-going). Inspired by a Tastings column last year, I became a student of WSET through Dreadnought. Wine education isn’t inexpensive. I’ve re-invested more than $2,200 in educating myself. And I will continue to do so, as other restaurants do.
Let’s all agree that the Pittsburgh restaurant scene has so much more to offer its guests today than it did five, 10 or even 20 years ago. I meet a lot of very talented and gifted restaurant people through trade, education and tasting groups. Let’s encourage them, not target them. Cheers to everyone!
JENNIFER C. MICO, Pino’s Contemporary Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar (chefpino.com)/Point Breeze
Thank you for such a well-written article. I would encourage you to write a follow-up article listing examples of restaurants with reasonable wine prices. If you really want to create a challenge that we will all benefit from, list the restaurants with the higher prices as well!
WAYNE CAMPER, Hampton
Aren’t Elizabeth Downer and Jack Brice such troublemakers! Their column [“Gouging by the Glass,” Food & Flavor, May 1] is going to engender a lot of change in behavior. Before their piece I could order the $50, $60 or $120 bottle of wine when dining and be sure that my fellow diners would perceive me to be generous and a man of good taste. Now, if I did the same thing, I would only be thought of as a fool.
In parallel, before the Downer-Brice piece, my restaurateur was happy, probably delighted, with my demonstration of good taste and generosity. Now ... well, it’s just not going to happen.
Things change and then they change again, and the wine-markup-in-Pittsburgh thing has got to change. Two ideas come to mind.
1. A pledge that we ask restaurateurs to sign. Let’s call it the We-Markup-Wine-The-Same-As-Food pledge. OK, we can’t call it that, but whatever it’s called it could generate a list of wine-lover-friendly restaurants that I, and I bet others, would consult before going out for dinner, or happy hour, on a given evening.
2. A little civil disobedience: Take a table at a wine-price-gouging restaurant; quietly chain yourselves to the table; open a BYOB bottle; begin enjoying the wine; see what happens. I haven’t written the press release for this yet ... but I know of a writer and a data cruncher.
PHIL SCHULLER, Allegheny West
Meanwhile in Mexico ...
I want to thank you, Elizabeth Boltson Gordon, for writing “How a trip to Mexico changed her heart ... and taste buds” [Food & Flavor, May 1]. I am a former resident of Mexico and San Miguel is my favorite place on the planet! I have so many great memories of different locales and their gastronomic delights. Your article illustrates how the variety of cuisine and availability of ingredients goes so far beyond the typical fare seen in most north-of-the-border Mexican restaurants. You put a smile on my face and reminded me it is time to make arrangements for my next trip to San Miguel.
Thanks again for using your gift of language to so beautifully capture the essence of a great place.
SCOTT BELL, Ross
That [“One chef’s quest” by Virginia Phillips, Food & Flavor, May 15] was an excellent article. I am delighted that Legume is having the dialogue about balancing its principles, business and the needs of customers and agribusiness all at once.
As a home gardener, I combine Clarion River Organics CSA participation with heirloom herbs and vegetables to feed us during the growing season.
While there is no perfect answer (only the one you can sleep with at night), I am happy to support those who make the effort to cook and feed us.
SIMONE HUDSON, Crafton
On spring greens
The love of greens [Foraging for spring greens -- in New York City,“ Miriam’s Garden by Miriam Rubin, Food & Flavor, May 15] is a good thing, unless you are talking about the love of money. We used to do lots of foraging amongst the bountiful wild plants in the Waynesburg area and one of our favorite things was cooked greens. Before they got old we picked dandelion, violet, lamb's quarter and plantain leaves for good eating. I washed them and usually pulled the leaves off the stems. I brought a cup or so of water to boil and dropped the leaves in, enjoying the tiny wiff of perfume when the violet leaves hit. I covered the pan. They cook very quickly; just test them with a fork. There are several ways you can serve them: plain, with butter, or with small pieces of ham or bacon. But be careful with the two pork products because they can overwhelm the delicate flavor of the greens.
CAROL RANDOLPH, Waynesburg
Send feedback to email@example.com or mail to Food at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Find the stories referred to above at post-gazette.com/food.