Are restaurant guests throwing away the varietal crutch they’ve used to choose wine for so long to embrace more blended wines? Yes, they are ordering more blends, say restaurateurs and bar owners, anecdotally noting an upswing. But, they add, customers still want to know which grapes are in those blends.
“I don’t think people are picking wines by the varietal the way they used to,” declares Jan Kelly, chef and owner of Meritage, a contemporary American cuisine restaurant in Milwaukee, Wis. The restaurant was named after the term coined by a group of California vintners to denote wines made with a specific blend of grapes; it also refers to Kelly’s blend of culinary styles. Several wine blends appear on Meritage’s list, which encompasses 10 reds and 14 whites by the glass, priced from $5.50 to $10, and some 60 bottles, ranging from $18 to $70. All the wines are listed by varietal name; with blends, the grapes are also listed.
According to the Cheers On-Premise BARometer Handbook, a publication of the Beverage Information Group, both red and white blends are showing an uptick. From 2005 to 2009, red blends saw an increase of 12.1 percent in terms of annual compound growth rate, and whites a jump of 18.6 percent.
At Meritage, an Italian chardonnay-verdicchio blend sells well, says Kelly. “For the less-adventurous customers, the fact that there is a familiar grape in the blend affords a certain comfort level,” she remarks. The same holds true for a chardonnay-albariño blend from Spain.” We had a 100 percent albariño on our list, but it took some hand-holding to get customers to try it. As part of a blend, albariño is an easier sell.”
Meritage’s wine list changes frequently. “But I always keep a few blends on the list all the time,” says the chef. Currently that’s Stone’s Throw Winery’s Field Blend, so-called because the wine is an unknown blend of grapes inter-planted in the vineyard–a practice that harkens back to Old World wine production and pre-Prohibition times.
An increase in popularity
Many operators are menuing more wine blends than single-varietal offerings these days. The Purple Pig, a Chicago restaurant featuring Mediterranean fare, is one of them, reports John Wilkerson, the general manager. The restaurant’s wine list also features wines from the Mediterranean, which are arranged by country, wine region and sub-region. There are over 50 wines by glass, priced $8 to $18, and over 250 bottles, ranging from $28 to as much as $400. “We still have the occasional customer who just asks for a chardonnay,” notes the general manager, who steers those guests to a white Burgundy because the restaurant doesn’t carry any American varietal wines. The restaurant does parenthetically list grape varietals on its wine list. A Sancerre, for example, is described as a sauvignon blanc. “It helps guests feel more comfortable when ordering,” says Wilkerson.
How restaurants and bars market wines is largely dictated by the region’s winemaking traditions and regulations. In Europe, centuries of experience and tradition have shown where which grapes grow best, and which blends of those grapes evoke the region’s terroir: a complex combination of soil and climatic conditions. Appellation regulations have cemented those practices into law. Old World labels typically cite the growing region but not the varietals, as they expect buyers to be familiar with the range of grapes they contain. Perhaps the best example is Bordeaux, the French red wine blended from up to five different red grapes.
In this country, it’s a different story. Some of the appeal of single-varietal wines can be traced back to Prohibition. After Repeal, many winemakers systematically replanted fallow fields with new vines of all the same varietal. Influential wine writers such as Frank Schoonmaker and Alexis Lichine promoted the idea of identifying wine by the main varietal to differentiate them from European place names. The practice stuck.
“There’s a simplicity to varietal labeling that makes it easier for consumers wrap their head around,” posits Ray Johnson, director of the Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute. “Varietal names just roll off the tongue and are easy for beginning wine drinkers to understand.” However, the educator notes that this is changing as drinkers become more educated about wine. “What we see in our research is that when choosing wine, consumers first look for the brand, then geographic names such as the country or region.”
Acceptance and curiosity
“I do think people are looking at blends quite a bit but they like to know what’s in the blends,” says Mary Melton, director of beverage for 201-unit, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. This inquisitive instinct is in keeping with how much of the American restaurant-going public came to be comfortable with single-varietal wine.
Every Chang’s location’s wine list has 46 wines, glasses range in price from $6 to $12. The majority of wines are single-varietals, with a few blends scattered throughout. “Ménage à Trois, a red blend of zinfandel, merlot and cabernet [sauvignon], sells well for us,” notes Melton, “but guests are always asking what’s in it.” That’s why P.F. Chang’s list spells out the grape names in all caps for all its wines.
“For me, the varietal gives so much of a flavor profile,” says Melton, “and flavors make it easier for a lot of people to relate to.” The chain’s wine list is organized progressively; sections are headed with descriptors like “Fruity, Floral, Creamy or Rich.” Melton explains that, this “is how we guide guests through our list; it’s quick and user friendly.” At P.F. Chang’s at least, single-varietal wines still rule: chardonnay accounts for 26 percent of sales, leading the pack; cabernet sauvignon accounts for 13 percent of sales. However, the chain’s current house red Vineyard 518 is a proprietary syrah blend produced by Wattle Creek Winery; it sells for around $7 a glass.
The beverage director is in the process of revising P.F. Chang’s wine list. “It’s time to offer some more interesting wines,” she says. “When the economy soured, people tended to drink wines they were familiar with, now they’re ready to move on to something different,” she notes, pointing to the growing appeal of blends.
Wine blending is an important tool in the winemaker’s arsenal for adding interest and complexity and making the most of different vintages. Wines made from a single grape variety can sometimes be monochromatic. Indeed, so-called varietal wines in the U.S. are permitted to contain up to 25 percent other grape varieties—10 percent less than the general world standard of 85 percent—and still retain that label. Each grape variety brings its own unique characteristics to the final blend, which in skilled hands can create a wine greater than the sum of its parts.
“In the dining room at Saison, I’m finding a push away from Napa Valley Cabs,” reports Mark Bright, co-owner and wine director of Saison, a seasonally inspired American cuisine restaurant in San Francisco. The restaurant boasts a collection of about 400 bottles, ranging in price from $30 to $4,000. Wines from the Languedoc, Provence and Southern Rhône, some of which are blends, are the big sellers, says Bright. Better price points are one reason for the switch, as is a quest for new viniferous frontiers. “People in San Francisco are more adventurous; they’re interested in off-beat regions like Jura,” opines the wine director.
Indeed, the switch from insistence upon single-varietals to an openness toward wine blends is largely due to greater sophistication among wine drinkers, according to operators. Kelly at Meritage agrees that, “people are more knowledgeable about wine and more into trying different things, whether it’s a blend or a new varietal.”
“For those consumers who go deeper into the subject of wine, there’s a willingness to delve into geographic place names,” adds Sonoma University’s Johnson.
“Customers are savvier about all aspects of wine,” adds Wilkerson at the Purple Pig. “They are starting to understand the importance of terroir rather than relying upon what the grapes are.”
One factor aiding consumer education is technology and instant access to information, says the general manager. “If a diner didn’t know what grapes are in a Bordeaux, now with a smartphone they can look it up without leaving the table.”
At the end of the day most operators say that if their customers continue to understand what is in the blend, they will hopefully also be more comfortable and open to trying it.