Get yourself expressed, said Virginia Woolf – and one way or another, with pen or paint, we mostly do. When the means of expression is food or wine, however, those of us on the receiving end may find our self-expression taking the form of a yelp of pain at the bill. It is difficult and time-consuming to create great food or great wine but only one of these is possible in a restaurant. Why, then, is on-trade alcohol so ruinous, and if violently expensive it must be, why hasn’t a flood of BYOB restaurants poured in to take the edge off?
Partly, it’s because restaurants make money from wine. Food is hard: all those perishables. Making wine is hard, too, but to sell it all you need is a palate, a budget and a corkscrew. Only the last of these is straightforward but putting together a wine list is similar to stocking, say, a clothes shop. Any good retail business requires someone with taste and cash but dresses and bottles don’t putrefy if nobody orders them for a couple of days.
I am happy to pay a big mark-up if the wine is something great that I’d have trouble finding elsewhere and a talented sommelier advises me on what to eat with it. Failing that, I’m happy to pay a bit for a decent glass with a nice meal and the luxury of having someone else do the washing up. But many wine lists are frankly rubbish. And then, no matter how much I drink, I’m not happy at all. I want to bring my own. There’s no legal impediment. A licence gives the restaurateur the right to sell alcohol; it doesn’t prevent him or her from not selling it. Corkage and other restrictions are up to the proprietor. Tayyabs, the superb Pakistani restaurant in east London, lets you B as many of YOBs as you like – although they do look at you oddly when you arrive with six bottles and one guest, muttering about research for a column on what to drink with curry.
Last week I ate at The Seagrass, a pop-up restaurant of such beauty and ingenuity I even forgive them for describing their duck as pan-fried. If someone can explain how you fry duck without a pan, I will pour them a glass of grape-crushed wine and listen with interest. With my ears.
But I digress. The Seagrass takes over a sumptuously tiled 19th-century pie and mash shop on Wednesday to Saturday nights. Food is simple, limited in choice and mostly good; the wine list is perfect, because you provide it. Why, I asked head chef Ian Sim, don’t more places do this? If they were permanent, he admitted, they would sell alcohol but they don’t want to think about buying and storing wine and anyway, in a recession it’s good to add value. I’ll say. At Flatiron, Shoreditch’s pop-up steak joint, superlative steak and superb chips are marred by a crap and condescending wine list (don’t tell me it’s spicy merlot. Tell me where it’s from and when it was made. Please.) Good steak with bad red is what they’ll feed me in the next world if I continue to misbehave in this one.
There’s more to this than me expressing an obsession with wine lists. According to a Wine and Spirit Trade Association market report, off-trade (non-restaurant) sales of wine over £10 went up by 32 per cent in the year to March 2012, while sales in bars and restaurants dropped by 8 per cent. So, there are people prepared to spend at least a tenner on wine if it will get them something good; with a restaurant mark-up, they know it won’t. Wine shops and BYOBs should join forces; the upshot will be a happy drinker, able to discover the best expression of terroir by buying in one place and drinking cheaply in another; and a much, much happier me.
Nina Caplan is the New Statesman’s drink critic