The expanding world of wine makes serving good vino easier than ever
Those of us who sell wine for a living in the restaurant and hospitality trade are constantly monitoring things like cost of sales, profit and loss mandates, always striving to keep our inventories in check. When wines are flying out the door, things are good; when cellars are loaded to the hilt with high-end bottles, it’s bad.
What sometimes gets lost in our efforts to drive revenue through sales is how we bought the wines in the first place. A restaurant can field an army of crack salespersons on their floor, but if the buyer wasn’t attentive at the point of purchase, the numbers will always come out askew.
As a wine director and sommelier, I personally deal with both ends of the buy/sell equation. Want to know what’s rowing the vinous boat for both my customers and myself in 2005? Bargains. Deals. Good wines at a good price. And I’m here to happily report that getting these tasty, reasonably priced beauties to place before your clientele is easier than ever before.
Do you remember, about 10 years or so ago, how there was a perception among some high-end restaurant goers that a bottle priced below $25 on a wine list had to be somehow flawed? I have a distinct memory of overhearing a woman say, “Charlie, let’s not try that wine. I’ve never heard of it and it’s only $25. Here’s another that I know I’ve seen before, and it’s only $39.” (I got a kick out of how she used the word “only” in both the derogatory and laudatory sense.)
Today’s market, which is chock full of grape varieties from the world over, has encouraged customers to jettison the belief that new and relatively inexpensive equates with problematic. This same change in thinking seems finally to have caught on with the nation’s restaurateurs as well. Mid-range bistros featuring wine lists bursting at the seams with chardonnay, cabernet and merlot (with a starting price point of $42) have dwindled decidedly. They’re not pterodactyls yet, but the sooner they become extinct, the better.
Please don’t misconstrue what I mean. I adore selling big-ticket items, and I carry them all: cult California cabs and Aussie shiraz, Barolo, Bordeaux, Burgundy; you name it. Every truly diverse list needs them, and my eyes brighten whenever I see them going out to a table. But that’s just the thing: they go out. Diners that order Raveneau Chablis or Shafer Hillside Select rarely ask for the sommelier’s assistance. They already knew what they wanted when they pulled into the parking lot. It’s the small, unheralded bottle that needs our help out on the floor.
I have a practice that I strictly adhere to: Never lose a potential wine sale to iced tea or soda due to a lack of breadth of selections on the wine list. In a quality-oriented, yet value-conscious marketplace, any listing without at least a few solid $24-$30 bottles is neglecting an opportunity to excite the casual wine drinker. And once excited, that casual drinker often becomes more interested and avid. Tables that formerly ordered wines by the glass will advance to full bottles, and four-tops that had shared a single bottle in the past may order a second. I’ve seen it occur dozens of times throughout the years.
WHAT’S A BARGAIN?
It’s all about relativity. Bargains can be found in the middle and upper echelon sectors as well the lower. For example, I was recently offered the opportunity to purchase the current release of a prestigious Oregon pinot noir. It normally comes to me at $28-30 wholesale and I turn it around on my list in the neighborhood of $75-80. But this time, the offering was $19.95. I don’t know why; perhaps the distributor over-ordered. Things like that happen often in this business. I quickly scooped it up, and I’m zooming through it on my by-the-glass list (at $15 a glass) and at $60 a bottle, which is well under what I previously charged, although it is important not to charge too little and thereby denigrate the wine. This is a strong deal for both the public and the restaurant. That’s my definition of a bargain.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a plethora of wines you see stacked high in the grocery stores. Without a doubt, the price is right. But just because a wine is priced well does not make it a bargain. Bad wine at a great price is a bad deal. Every time.
The quality of low-end wines can be passable in some cases, worse in others. And, once again, the public’s perception always comes into play. Do you want your intermediate to higher-end customers noticing these wines on your list, therefore possibly lowering the esteem of the entire list in their eyes? I don’t believe in ever placing mediocre products on my list. There are just too many good values out there. So let’s talk about that.
Below are a few of the sweet deals in the market today. Most are generally available, but some may not be so easy to find. Those of us with determination usually get rewarded. Sometimes I feel like one of those pigs in Piedmont, Italy, traipsing around in the woods searching for truffles. It may take a little work, but the end result is worth it. The prices listed are ballpark wholesale bottle prices:
The Golden State has not been a bargain playground over the last decade or so, but there are still values to be found. Many of the syrah blends and petite sirahs made in California continue to be priced correctly and stand out in a sea of overpriced cabernet and merlot.
For syrah, the Jaffurs Bien Nacido ($18-$22) and Longoria ($15-$20), both from Santa Barbara, and the Zealer Bolero ($13-$18) are knockouts. Cuvee Le Bec blend from Beckman ($10-$14) resembles a good Chateaneuf-du-Pape. For petite sirahs, I love the Trinitas Old Vines from Lodi ($14-$18). The Vinum Cellars Pets ($8-$12) and Concannon (the first house to varietally label petite sirah) at about $9 are two of the best lower-priced reds I can think of.
Wines from Argentina are getting better all the time. Sales have gone through the roof in the U.S. over the last few years, and with good reason. They are tasty and priced right. Search for Tikal Patriota, a 60/40 blend of bonarda and malbec ($15-$20) or the Tikal Amorio, a pure old vines malbec ($18-$22). These two are better than most wines at twice the price.
I believe there is a misconception when it comes to Argentine malbec. Sure, it’s dark, sometimes even opaque. But these wines are never thick, alcoholic blasters. They are mid-weight, balanced and flexible reds that work superbly at table. Two others of note that are perfect for your by-the-glass list: Don Miguel Gascon malbec ($7-$11) and the Trumpeter (this label was recently purchased by the Argentine powerhouse Catena) malbec/syrah blend, ($7-$10).
One last recommendation: The torrontes (a flowery, crisp indigenous white) from La Yunta will come to you at around $8 and it blew away $30 viogniers in a recent blind tasting.
There have been some distinct underachievers coming out of Chile. Pricing has always been solid, but finding the quality to match it has been a struggle. I believe things are getting better, though. Now that producers have embraced the grape variety carmenere, I believe we’ll see a better quality/price ratio. One house that I particularly look for is Casa Silva. Their reserva carmenere is dynamite, packed with fruit and flavor, and it will shine on your glass list at $8-$11 wholesale.
This country’s values have a tendency to come from the same appellations, year after year. Alsace, Languedoc/Roussillon, Loire, Macon/Beaujolais and the southern Rhone Valley lead the way. Here a few choices:
Rieslings from Albert Mann and Trimbach in Alsace ($12-$16) are balanced, clean whites and the Mas de Gourgonnier from Les Baux de Provence and Chateau de Flaugergues Coteaux de Languedoc (grenache/ syrah/mourvedre blends) both wholesale around $10-$12.
The blistering vintage 2003 brought the kind of ripeness to the Loire Valley cabernet franc that’s rarely seen. I believe the appellation Saumur-Champigny was particularly blessed. Look for Granges Neuves and Domaine de la Seigneurie at about $10-$13. These are the types of reds that have bolstered the lists at Paris bistros for as long as I can remember.
Beaujolais saw the same super ripeness in ’03 and these wines, while aberrational, are nevertheless delicious. Both the Domaine Diochon Moulin-a-Vent and Chateau Thivin Cote de Brouilly ($11-$16) have found their way on to my list. One Maconnais house I favor is JC Thevenet; their Macon-Pierreclos was one of the few 2003 whites with some acidity coming from Burgundy. Now that the cleaner 2004’s are out, it’s even better. About $11-$15.
Southern Rhone reds are ripe as well in the current 2003 release. Just make sure you taste before you purchase, as some are a little too ripe for this buyer’s palate.
There’s always something intriguing coming out of Italy. For whites, try the Colle Stefano Verdicchio de Matelica ($9-$13), an organic wine with crispness and distinct depth of flavor or the Maculan Pino & Toi (a pinot bianco/tocai/pinot grigio blend, $8-$12). This Veneto-based house never seems to miss with their whites. I just tasted the 2003 Promessa Rosso Salento, a negro amaro/primitivo combo from Apulia ($6-$10), which was totally juicy and snuggled up beautifully with farfalle arrabiata. Another 2003 red of note is Boroli Dolcetto d’Alba Madonna di Como ($9-13). Deep red and powerful, but balanced.
What hasn’t been said about Spain recently? More good bottles at super prices than you can shake a stick at (if that’s your idea of fun). I could name twenty here, but I’ll pick four: Las Rocas Garnacha Rosado 2004 from Calatayud (best rosé I’ve tasted in years, about $6-$9); Castell del Remei Gotim Bru (tempranillo blend from Costers de Segre, $8-$12); Guelbenzu Azul (cab/merlot/tempranillo from Navarra region, $9-$13) and the Pucho mencia from Bierzo, lush and bold and presently sitting contently on my by-the-glass list. About $8-$12 wholesale.
AND FINALLY …
Here are few “parting shots” from some other countries: Loimer’s crisp and mineral-laden Lois gruner veltliner from Austria, $8-$12; the bold Boschkloof Syrah from the Stellenbosch region of South Africa, $12-$17; Quinta do Crasto Duoro from Portugal, $7-$12 and the Torlesse pinot noir from Canterbury on New Zealand’s South Island ($14-$18), a dead ringer for a good Givry or Mercurey from Burgundy.