We all know the feeling, come the dog days of summer, when nothing but a cold beer will do. It is a common mood, even among the most fervent wine enthusiasts. So what’s a sommelier to do to entice customers into ordering up some vino when the mercury is up?
Most wine directors change or at least alter their wine lists to suit the season, just as a chef may change his menu as winter becomes spring, summer turns to fall. When summer comes around, many wine directors naturally go with the flow of the food and the weather, bringing on lighter, brighter wines that won’t weigh down the palate or leave customers feeling overwhelmed by powerful alcohol levels, the way a big 15.5 percent cabernet might. Mark Mendoza at SONA in Los Angeles says that he likes to increase his offerings of crisp white rieslings, both by the glass and by the bottle. “One of the great things about some of the cooler climate rieslings from the likes of Germany is that you can drink a whole bottle by yourself and not get drunk because the alcohol levels aren’t as high as some other wine producing regions around the world.”
In Las Vegas at the MGM Grand, wine director Jaime Smith favors what he refers to as “high altitude, marginal climate wines” at a time of the year when the atmosphere outside can seem quite the opposite: flat and very hot. Offering bright whites from the Loire, Galicia, Chablis, the Mosel, Friuli and the Wachau in Austria, is the closest you can get to a vibrant thirst quencher that will keep the wine drinking crowd, well, drinking wine.
SONA, Los Angeles
Mendoza takes it a step further come the summer by replacing one style of the same white wine grape with another. For example, “I intend to switch the Kabinett riesling I’m currently pouring, that has some residual sugar, to another drier, crisper riesling from Germany or maybe Austria.” Warm summers aside, he also likes to have the widest variety of wines, more than fifty available by the glass, to suit the food of chefs David and Michelle Myers. Mendoza says David loves to create impulse-driven, spur of the moment tasting menus, and the wine director needs to be ready for it. He offers confidently, “I feel I have all bases covered.”
SEASONAL WINE AND FOOD
At a time of the year when chefs become excited about menus that incorporate the promise of summer’s bounty, thinking about what wine to offer with certain dishes poses all sorts of possibilities for the sommelier. Jill Roberts, wine director at The Harrison in New York City, says, “I try to think in terms of the chef’s food, so I just added a dry, floral and citrusy Malagousia Greek white that will go really well with chef Brian Bistrong’s calamari and seafood dishes, and it’s also a great white to drink when the weather warms up.”
Like any good sommelier, Smith of the MGM Grand believes that wine is an extension of the food, and so at the casino hotel’s fine and casual dining establishments, choosing wines that suit summer fare is the way to go. “I try to teach my sommeliers at the MGM Grand about harmony. I love Italian wines because they are harmonious with food and that is the concept that we try to keep going at our restaurants.”
As well as stocking up on fragrant white wines, restaurants and bars have witnessed a recent modest rise in the demand for rosé, especially when the sultry heat kicks in. Practically every sommelier interviewed increases the number of rosés on the list, both by the bottle and by the glass, in the summer. Roberts of The Harrison is a fully-fledged enthusiast of going pink when the season calls for it.
“The first thing most beverage directors think about when summer starts to roll around is rosé. I usually like to add one to the list by the glass and ideally about three or four by the bottle. I aim to offer a nice variety from around the world, like a traditional French rosé, a Spanish rosado, as well as some more unusual ones such as the Hungarian pink that I just picked up. There are so many different styles of rosé out there and it’s important to offer different tastes.”
Smith concurs when it comes to upping his inventory of salmon-coral and deep hued pink wines. “The main switch we think about in the summer is with an emphasis on pink. I actually just bought a tremendous amount of rosé. The Mediterranean countries, in the south of France and some areas of northern Spain are the ones doing it the best. I have a particular preference for buying rosés made from grenache because the grape offers weight, terroir nuances and it exudes flavor.”
Rosés, according to Beth von Benz, wine director at New York City’s Guastavino’s, can satisfy the desire for a cool refreshing cocktail. “Rosé is especially great at this time of the year when the fresh 2004 vintages have just come out. They will even appeal to a cocktail crowd because they can have some of that tart, strawberry, fruit-driven characteristics that you get in many mixed drinks.”
To get customers salivating, Rick Pitcher the director of operations for Bar Americain, chef Bobby Flay’s recently opened New York City restaurant, says that as soon as those first days of hot weather hits they’ll be promoting pink. “We have a raw seafood bar here and we find that when diners see fresh shellfish going out to another table they immediately order some themselves. It’s like they have to see it to be tempted. We are going to try and encourage the same thing with our rosé by displaying about six bottles on the bar in an antique ice bucket.”
One of the rosés that Mendoza pours by the glass at Sona is Nicolas Feuillate Champagne and he says that he’ll continue to pour Nicolas through the summer. Could bubbles be the way to go when it’s sizzling outdoors?
The Harrison, NYC
Smith at MGM Grand has witnessed an increase among customers for the taste of Champagne that he thinks will continue through the warmer months. “I see a resurgence for drinking artisanal Champagne, not just on special occasions.”
Von Bunz says Guastavino’s is also going through their fair share of bubbly inventory due to what she calls a strong English and European clientele that are more open to casually imbibing sparkling wine. “A glass of sparkling is the perfect way to start a summer evening and something like the Palmer, a méthode champenoise that we pour by the glass, from Long Island is perfect because it’s less austere than Champagne and easier to drink when the weather is warm. I’ll even change my Champagne from a heavier yeasty, perhaps more predominantly pinot noir offering to a more delicate style, maybe a blanc de blanc.”
A new attitude for bubbles is what has encouraged beverage director Shawn Dore at Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa restaurants to start offering a flight of bubbles, which will include a prosecco, a méthode champenoise from Franciacorta and the Taittinger Brut NV Champagne. The flight will be available at Borgata’s Italian style trattoria-wine bar, Ombra, where they present themed glasses of vino year-round.
Dore sees the summer as an opportunity to encourage customers to experience a wider range of sparklers so that they will consider drinking them regularly, outside of the holiday season. “It is easier to sell sparklers during the summer because it is the time of year when people are more adventurous and light hearted.” Dore also sees the flights as a great way to introduce drinkers, who think all pink is white zin, to dry rosés such as Tavel from the Rhone.
17 restaurant, Houston
Flights will continue to be used to get patrons to drink more wine and try out new territory at 17 restaurant in the Sam Houston Hotel, Houston. Sommelier Patrick Davila has created what he calls “Palette” at the bar of the restaurant. He explains, “I choose local artists to exhibit around the bar area and I pick several flights of three wines to go with the art. This summer I’m looking for visuals that are reflective of white and rosé wine producing areas. For instance, in the case of pink, it would be the south of France. The wines I pick will look at the meaning, the essence and the inspiration behind each piece of art. It’s been really successful in getting bar customers to explore wines from different regions.”
COCKTAILS VS WINE
Do bars and restaurants find they have to struggle to get folks to order any wine at all when the idea of a highball thirst quencher can be more appealing? It seems not, according to Roberts. “I’d say our sales of wine and cocktails are even. A lot of our diners will start with a cocktail and then move onto wine with the meal.” In Las Vegas, where the mixology scene rules, Smith says “I think we have the hottest cocktail scene on the Strip, yet I don’t see a competition between wine and cocktails per se. People will always start off the night with a mixed drink while our wine customers will drink wine regardless of the time of year.”
In a similar vein, Dore at Borgata offers this scenario; “Wine is more popular than cocktails depending on the venue and cocktails are hotter than wine at other times. At Mixx, the space serves as a restaurant that serves wine-friendly food by chef Edwyn Ferrari, formerly of Nobu. Later at night the restaurant space becomes a nightclub destination and at that point cocktails are the choice of drink. It always depends on the environment, if you are at a good restaurant you want to drink wine with your food but when you’re at a nightclub, drinking a Mojito makes more sense.”
It seems that at the end of the day, even a hot summer’s day at that, if you’ve got good, local, warm-weather fare and the wines to complement, you shouldn’t have a problem selling the stuff. Smith offers these words, “It’s important for good restaurants to be as seasonal with their wines as they are in the kitchen.”