Of late years many changes have taken place in the everyday life of the community, and although the Englishman's home is still his castle, and home is still sweet home, the flat, the hotel and the restaurant are silently working a revolution in the social habits of the upper and middle classes.
Hospitality is becoming less and less dispensed upon the host's own mahogany, and more and more in public places, with the result that the greatest consumption of wine now takes place, not in private houses, but in restaurants and hotels. Accordingly, it is desirable to inquire how the proprietors of these establishments are discharging their responsibilities, and rising to their opportunities in this particular matter.
To tell the plain truth, restaurateurs and hotel-keepers, as a class, go about the purveying of wine with indifference to their customers' and their own ultimate interests which could hardly be greater if the whole fraternity were secretly leagued to stamp out wine drinking altogether. In all other respects hotels and restaurants have been continuously improving, but their wine, the profitable ride out of which such places are mainly built up and kept going, is generally both poor and dear. It is interesting to imagine some gentleman of the old school arriving for the first time at a 21st-century hotel.
At his first sight of the liveried servants in the marble hall, almost as gorgeous as a king's retainers in a palace, at his first trial of the lift raising him to the sixth floor more swiftly than his legs could carry him up a dozen stairs, at his first acquaintance with the electric light, the tape, the telephone, in short, amidst all the wonders of modern luxury, the astonished guest would naturally expect the kitchen and the cellar to be equally ahead of the old-fashioned inns.
And so far as concerns the food, served amidst flowers and music, at softly lit tables, he would not be disappointed. He would find that our cooks have indeed made headway since the day when Voltaire twitted England with being the land of a hundred religions and only one sauce." But when emboldened by all this efficiency and progress, he opens the wine list in the belief that he is about to enjoy an exquisite surprise in wine, what happens?
He finds that his best friend has failed him. The good wine, for which he would cheerfully forfeit a thousand tapes and a gross of telephones, refuses to appear. The stuff the waiter pours into his glass may not necessarily be impure or bad indeed it may be drinkable, always provided the guest is willing to pay half-crowns for what the proprietor has bought with sixpences. But while everything else in the place is better than of yore, the wine, which should be the crown and glory of the feast, is worse. In this matter, cause and effect are becoming curiously complicated.
Having succeeded in lowering the wine standard through the absence of effective protests from those who know what good wine is, the hotel and restaurant keepers are nowadays dealing mainly with a rising generation upon whose uneducated and undiscerning palates anything with an E-WINE important-looking label can be palmed off almost with impunity. If the lift should stick between two floors, or if the electric bells refused to ring, or if the hot taps in the bathroom yielded only tepid water, the guest affected would make an instant complaint, and therefore such things are hardly ever allowed to happen.
But when the hotel or restaurant keeper commits the offense of serving ill-chosen, ill-cellared, or perhaps downright dishonest wine at enormous prices, the chances are that his otherwise fastidious client will cheerfully drain his glass without the faintest suspicion that he has become the half-poisoned victim of greed or incompetence.
As regards hotel and restaurant wine in general, and the lower- priced table wines in particular, it is high time for the quality to go up and for the prices to go down. So far as quality is concerned, the proprietors of public establishments ought to consider it as disgraceful to supply unwholesome or ill-kept wine as to serve questionable fish or tainted meat.
At the head of every wine list there ought to be a guarantee that all the wines thereinafter priced are the pure juice of the grape, and that they pertain to the vineyards and vintage years named in the lists. To introduce this reform would cost the honest and competent proprietor whose wines are pure and good, no more than a few extra drops of printers' ink, and as for the unfairly or badly conducted establishments, the absence of such a guarantee would enable lunchers and diners to draw their own conclusions, and to betake themselves to safer quarters. In contending also that the prices of wines drunk in public ought to go down, it is, of course, not claimed that such wines should be made as cheap as similar wines consumed at one's own table.
The restaurant keeper has many expenses to meet, and he makes no direct charge for the use of his heavily rented and rated premises, nor for the wear and tear of his costly furnishings. It is, however, hard on wine drinkers, who have always been his best friends, that the business should be so arranged as to yield comparatively little profit upon the food, while several hundred percents are exacted from the wine. The proprietors of hotels and restaurants are, as a rule, a very astute, far-seeing and business-like body of men, and it is somewhat remarkable, therefore, that they have not yet discovered that they themselves are to blame for the large decrease in the consumption of wine at their establishments, about which they so often complain.
For a considerable time past, wine shippers and merchants have also been lamenting a diminution in wine orders on the part of the public, and we are sometimes told that all this is due to the energy shown by the advocates of temperance. To those, however, who understand the facts of the case this assertion is absurd. There is no doubt, of course, that temperance principles are making headway in this country, but among the educated classes who drink wine, temperance means moderation and not total abstinence.
The educated advocate of temperance is a broad-minded man of all-around sympathies, and while he believes intemperance, he does not become a total abstainer, as such a course would, according to his views, be intemperance and not temperance at all. Whatever, therefore, may be said as regards spirits, the decrease in the consumption of wine is not in the least likely to be due to the activity of the temperance reformers, but it is probably largely to be accounted for by the fact that the people who do drink wine are compelled to drink considerably less than they would like to, owing to the high prices which prevail at hotels and restaurants where so many meals are now taken, and by being obliged to lessen their consumption, or abstain altogether, at these places, they acquire the habit of doing so elsewhere.
A comparison of the prices charged by wine merchants to ordinary private customers, with those charged by first-class hotels and restaurants to their patrons, is a very instructive study, and it serves a useful purpose in showing that, even if the same quality of wine were supplied, this establishment would make a very large profit indeed whereas by supplying, as they generally do, wines of a very inferior quality to those of the wine merchant, the profit is enormously increased and becomes quite extortionate.
This method of doing business may answer very well for a time, but only at the cost of bringing good wine into disrepute, lessening its consumption and inflicting serious injury on the legitimate wine trade, which must sooner or later react upon those who have been the cause of it. This particular phase of the question has been a serious one for many years past, and although hotel and restaurant proprietors have been shamefully neglecting the interests of their customers, vitiating their tastes and lightening their pockets, the people principally concerned have made but a feeble protest.
This has been a mistake, and the time has certainly arrived when strong measures should be taken to bring about some reform. The matter rests with the public, and they should decline to patronize any hotel or restaurant where the prices are not reasonably moderate, and where the proprietors do not give some sort of guarantee, as far as it is possible to do so, that their wine is procured from reliable sources.
We live in an age when rich as well as poor expect to get fair value for the money they expend, and it is those who recognize the existence of this feeling and adapt their business arrangements to meet it in a practical spirit, who will best promote their own interests.