photography by Tom Callins
HOW TO FIND OLD VINTAGES? When you find out, let me know.” This was the response of Ayan Rivera and Sean Santamour, the two co-managers busy putting the final touches on the wine list at the new Blue Ribbon Bakery in New York City. They selected their 100-item international list primarily from small distribution houses, but at the eleventh hour, the two were still madly scurrying around town, trying to find some quality burgundies from highly regarded older vintages. To get the wines they wanted, Rivera and Santamour were forced to compromise; for instance, they settled for a 1990 Gevrey from a less than popular negociant. Was it worth cutting back on quality just to appease customers who check the wine list for a status vintage? They thought it was, but only to get through the hectic hours before opening the restaurant; after the dust settles, they swear they’ll buy only what they really want.
Good luck to them. Putting together a satisfying selection of vintages can be troublesome in these wine-mad times. Success is all about the coming together of strategy, geography, timing and vigilance. Of course, money helps too.
What are the best ways to develop and maintain a solid wine list as wholesale and retail prices skyrocket like the recent Dow Jones? Various operators have developed their own methods to secure favorites. For some, wine auctions are the most obvious method for stocking up on vintages, but they are arguably the most costly. And if you’re outside Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, where the most frequent and highly regarded wine auctions occur, you already know that route is inconvenient.
John Paul, the wine buyer at Tony’s in Houston, relies on auction to maintain his stock of 20,000 bottles, but he also depends on the secretive world of the wine scouts, the beverage world’s equivalent to antique “pickers” who roam the backroads to secure bargain collectibles. The wine scouts seek out quality caches of privately-owned wines or restaurants looking to quietly divest themselves of fine vintages here and in Europe.
Presently, Tony’s has sufficient 1985 bordeaux in the cellar to keep up with demand, even though they’re selling fast. Paul stocks up on new vintages with great expectations like the 1996 burgundies and will lay them down until they blossom.
If wine buying in Houston is a tad difficult, procuring in Iowa is a real headache. “Getting out to the Chicago or New York auctions isn’t always easy,” says Lou Alboughini, general manager of the 801 Steak and Chop House in Des Moines. “So I buy as much as possible when possible. Out here if an opportunity comes up, you’ve got to pounce.” Alboughani has a wide range of bordeaux vintages cellared, including a 1932. He watches the auction prices carefully, since market fluctuations informs his own price list. For example, when a 1982 Mouton sold at auction for $400 a bottle, he upped 801’s price from $600 to $1,000… and still sold quite a few. And if such highly allocated items as Opus One are moving too quickly, 801’s answer is to raise the price to slow sales until their next allocated shipment arrives.
Alboughini loves it when he gets a crack at some of his customers’ well-stocked and well-maintained cellars or someone’s unwanted liquid inheritance. “Of course, knowing how the wine was stored is essential. Sometimes we pay money for the wines; sometimes we barter for meals.”
LITTLE TOWN WINE
Typically, vintages do not play a significant role in small town operations. But Ashby Lawson, part-owner of DiPalma’s Italian Cafe in Tuscaloosa, AL, says that being a big fish in that little pond is a great boon for wine finds. DiPalma’s is the largest buyer of Italian wines in its area and as a result gets some unusual opportunities like a private tour of a wholesaler’s warehouse full of slow-moving wines. Recent finds included a few cases of 1988 Monsanto Chiantis, a mixed bag of Gajas and a couple of older Macarini Barolos. Ashby laments, however, that due to Alabama’s beverage laws limiting wine proof, he can’t carry any Amarones, which are all above 13% alcohol.
Though wine buyers still salivate over the 1994 class of California wines, vintages are less of an issue at restaurants dealing primarily in American wines. But coping with wine allocations is a difficult matter. With super-premium bottles emerging in tiny production batches accompanied by pre-release ratings hype, wine managers must decide whether it’s worth the trouble to secure a few bottles of, say, Turley’s Aida if the wine sells out in two weeks. Wine buyers for such high-volume restaurants as Smith & Wollensky may be willing to go to the trouble, but with their volume and wine-friendly reputation, they rarely are forced to grovel to get what they want.
Smith & Wollensky’s parent, the New York Restaurant Group, plucked Matthew Moore from their Chicago unit of Park Avenue Cafe, where he’d already developed relationships with local wine sales staff and wineries, and moved him to the new Chicago Smith & Wollensky.
“You drop the name Smith & Wollensky, and then, the sales staff pulls out their best,” Moore said. “A lot of the wineries want to be seen on our list. We’re in an enviable position.” But he also says that he’s not too concerned when he runs out of an allocated product. “This is a great time for wine. There’s always something else to discover.”
CORNERING THE MARKET
In setting up restaurants around the country, the New York Restaurant Group discovered that some highly-allocated case lots are easier to uncover in Miami where there’s not so much competition. Drew Peterson of Astor Place, Miami Beach, will drink to that. He recently revamped his list to show more premium wine. “I don’t want any wines that my clients can buy at grocery stores. Also, when I first came on there had always been two merlots sold by the glass. No more. I’m going to more interesting wines.”
His list is heavy on hard-to-find, highly-allocated items, like Tom Eddy Cabernet. “First of all, there’s not a lot of competition in South Beach for these items. Secondly, I’m not afraid of running out of something and having to update my list. If I throw something on, and it doesn’t work, I take it off the next Friday and try something else.”
Peterson relies on his staff’s ability to sell wine and insists local wine sellers conduct weekly in-house seminars. “Now, if customers come in for something like a white zin, my staff has the education to offer an alternative, like a white riesling. I won’t offend customers by offering them bad wines.”
Unlike in Miami, competing for allocated wines in the Boston environs can be fierce. David Turin of David’s restaurants in Massachusetts and Maine believes that being a good customer and paying bills on time helps him get the wines he prefers. Great working relationships with sales folk who clue him in on quality close-outs also helps. “I love close-outs,” he says. “They’re a good way to get large format bottles and great deals. I don’t care if it’s a case here or there. A computer makes changing a wine list very easy.” In a move to get more customers to order higher quality wine, Turin will shortly change his pricing policy, pricing every bottle ten dollars above wholesale. “New England is a strange location. Elsewhere, if a bottle isn’t moving you raise the price, and it sells. That rule doesn’t fly in New England. Value does.”
ROLL YOUR OWN
Rocco Sommazi is a good example of a creative marketer trying to seize control of his wine supply and keep the vintage he wants on hand. Sommazi is opening up a restaurant in Los Angeles called Rocco this summer where he’ll try to economize while reserving a good vintage by bringing over a few barrels of wine from a friend’s Italian vineyard. Without bottling it, he intends to deposit the wine directly into a nitrogen system and serve it from a tap, “Just like beer,” he said. With a couple of barrels in his basement, he won’t have to worry about running out of the current vintage of his house pour for quite a while, unless, of course, the concept of wine from the keg doesn’t quite catch on.
In Des Moines, Lou Alboughani said that sometimes a salesperson will try to leverage him into buying some below average wines. But usually, he says no. But if the seller is holding out something he really wants? “Well,” he concedes, “Maybe I will pour it… but the wine they want me to support has to be reasonably decent.”
Alice Feiring writes about wine and restaurants for Elle Decor and other magazines.
Dan Perlman, wine master of New York City’s Felidia, which has one of the most extensive wine cellars in the country, offered some tips to help you find the wines you want.
“We deal a lot with auctions, of course. These are reliable but very expensive. You should remember that wineries, here and in Europe, often keep library stock and if you contact them directly, they may have vintages available and will be happy to ship it to you special order. You must be in contact with your favorite wineries because sometimes they re-release bottles, and you want them to remember them when they do.”
Personal relationships, Perlman says, are key. Take full advantage of the opportunity presented when winery representatives visit your restaurant. That personal connection may pave the way to some bottles at a reasonable cost.
There are also some retail merchants or wine consultants who are first to hear when vintages become available. “We often get calls from people who want to unload their personal cellar,” says Perlman. “Tempting but too risky. But buying a cellar from reputable restaurants or wine shops that are getting out of the business is a good bet. Make sure you know how the wines were stored. If you know where they come from, this could be a great opportunity.
TO PRINT OR NOT TO PRINT
All operators are wary of the liquor seller who wants to set up your wine list, or salespeople who offer to print the list for free. Few beverage managers who want to be considered serious about their wine offerings would allow it. While it may once have been tempting, today’s computers allow most places to update their lists very easily. Tony’s goes through so much wine they reprint their list two to three times a week. Smith and Wollensky reprints the list whenever they run out of eight vintages and keeps a chalkboard handy to apprise wait staff of eighty-sixed and switched vintages. The wine folk at De Palma’s Italian Cafe admit to a huge mistake when they printed the wine list on back of the menu, making it “a bear” to reprint. They say this will be remedied after the next menu change.
David Turin of David’s updates his list every other week. “A while back, we tried listing wines without vintages, but that didn’t work. People feel you’re putting something over on them. They’re funny–even if they get a better vintage than they ordered, they feel short-changed.”