wines may be seeing some tough competition from Australia, Argentina, New Zealand and even other domestic producers in the on-premise sector, but many operators point to a few key factors that keep their consumers dedicated to wines from the Golden State.
Being part of the home team in tough economic times has helped the area’s sales and the abundant marketing that has made certain regions household names doesn’t hurt either, according to operators.
“In general, I believe our guests not only want to support American products but are also more familiar with the flavor profile of California wine,” says Juan Gomez, master sommelier at L’Escalier, the signature French restaurant at 545-room The Breakers Palm Beach resort in Palm Beach, Florida. “Due to the economy, people are finding comfort in the things that are more familiar. In the case of wine that means French and California wine.” Of the 46 wines by the glass and 1,600 bottles offered at L’Escalier, seven California brands are available by the glass (priced from $12 to $20 for six-ounce pours) and 540 California bottle selections are offered (priced from $40 to $1,525).
“Yes, people want to support the home team,” agrees Lisa Redwine, manager and wine director at the 100-seat, California cuisine Shores Restaurant in La Jolla, California. “But also, when people go out to dinner, they’re spending money they had to work hard for. They’re going for something they feel more of a safe bet. They’re not so willing to take a super high risk because they had to work so hard for that money.”
The Shores’ best-selling wine might be an Argentine Malbec (2007 Bautista Simona Reserve, $9 by the glass and $19 for the half-bottle carafe), but Redwine points out that California chardonnays, sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs are also huge sellers. Some top California wines at Shores include the 2009 Kenwood Chardonnay from Yulupa, priced at $7.50 a glass and $15 a bottle; 2007 Stuhlmuller Reserve from Alexander Valley, $12, $25; 2009 Honig Sauvignon Blanc from Napa, $8, $17; and a 375-ml. bottle of the 2006 Tolosa Pinot Noir from Edna Valley for $25.
About 70 percent of The Shores’ wines sold by the bottle are from California, priced from $29 to $189, as well as 13 of the 24 by-the-glass selections, priced from $7.50 to $14 for five and a half ounce pour.
According to Cheers’ On-Premise BARometer Handbook research, California remains the largest contributor to domestic table-wine sales but is continuing to lose share to new upstarts in every state. Total domestic table-wine consumption dropped 5.8 percent in 2009 from 2008 and imported wine sales were down 6.7 percent on premise. The annual compound growth rate for domestic table-wine consumption from 2005 to 2009 was down .7 percent, according to The Beverage Information Group.
Challenges for Team California
While California wines continue to be on-premise favorites a couple of factors may be hurting their sales. The focus on locally sourcing both food and wine may have taken a slight dent out of California wine sales, according to Cheers’ On-Premise BARometer Handbook research. The trend of restaurants creating their own proprietary private label offerings with local producers may have hurt sales of California wines outside of their home state.
Australian wines are the bestsellers at Outback Steakhouse, the Tampa, Florida-headquartered international chain with roughly 900 Australian steakhouses in the United States and abroad. Yet Suzan Waldschmidt, the chain’s director of beverage, says that’s because Aussie labels are the house wines in most markets. Forty percent of the 17 by-the-glass wine list (typically priced from $4.95 to $9) is from Australia, but California brands make up the majority. And California wines are popular at Outback locations across the country.
“We have a pretty mainstream customer, a middle-income customer, and they really steer toward the name brands,” Waldschmidt says. Top performing brands at Outback include Kendall Jackson, Sutter Home and Beringer, according to Waldschmidt.
These brands have continued to hold steady, she notes, for a variety of reasons, none of which may specifically include the idea of supporting the home team. “I don’t know if they put that much thought into it,” Waldschmidt says, “but I do think they’re playing safe with their purchases. They’re not going to order a wine they’ve never tried or a brand they’ve never heard of. They’re steering toward a lot of traditional, bigger name brands versus something that might be a little more expensive and not a recognizable brand. Or maybe not necessarily the brand, but the region, somewhere they’re not familiar with.”
That’s a plus for Napa and Sonoma. “Exactly,” Waldschmidt says. “That’s a special comfort zone for them. It’s a safe bet.”
Nationally, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are the best-selling California varietals, says Emily Wines, master sommelier for the San Francisco-based Kimpton Restaurant group that operates more than 50 restaurants in the United States, including the Area 31 Mediterranean-influenced seafood restaurant at Kimpton’s 411-room Epic Hotel in Miami.
Some patterns are changing, Wines points out. “There has been a current rise in pinot noir, possibly due to [Academy Award-winning 2004 movie] Sideways, but also just because there are some really solid examples of it out there now,” she says. “Stylistically, California pinot noir is much bolder than its Oregon and French counterpoints and that really speaks to the cabernet [sauvignon] and zinfandel drinkers out there. Sauvignon blanc has risen in part to New Zealand’s success with the grape and also with the rise of the ‘anything-but-chardonnay’ [ABC] drinker.”
The Breakers’ Gomez agrees. “Pinot noir has experienced a great revival over the last few years with malbec [being] very popular as well. Our clientele is familiar with the quality and styles of these Californian wines.”
Familiarity and Quality Remain Priorities
Operators note that many of their customers remain instinctively comfortable ordering a wide range of California wines. The big varietals continue to lead the pack. Napa Valley Chardonnays (bottles priced from $50 to $150) remain the most popular white wines at The Breakers, Gomez says, “because of its ability to pair with diverse foods.” Customers are more likely, on the other hand, to order cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux blends ($75 to $600) “due to their rich tannins, ripe black fruit and long finish.”
“I do think we are starting to see exploration around the newer varietals,” adds Outback’s Waldschmidt. The newer varietals are gaining ground. Pinot Noir seems to do really well.”
Quality also remains at the heart of the choice to order California wine as well, according to operators. At Area 31, Wines developed the wine list, which features six wines by the glass from California ($9 to $15 for five-ounce pours) and 34 bottle selections from California ($35 to $525). The economy and that support-the-home-team mentality definitely contribute to the popularity of California wines, she notes, “but also California wines have great recognition for quality as well.”
So while there may be a lot of stiff competition out there, California wines continue to do well on-premise. And many operators don’t see any reason that should change.
“California wines represent our customer well,” Waldschmidt says. “Even though we’re an Australian-themed restaurant, we’re American cuisine, American grilled. I’m not saying we’d never do an Argentina malbec, but we might as well do a California malbec. I think [California wines] will continue to do well, at least for us.”
“I see California wines solidifying their typicity,” Wines says. “That is, people will begin to recognize styles from each region as they do in other countries. Each region will also embrace certain varietals and style in stronger ways by increasing the typicity.”
Adds Redwine: “I think [California wines] will continue to grow, especially as the consumer becomes more and more educated. They’ll start celebrating the Paso [Robles] wines, Amador County.”