wine is as strong as ever. According to Cheers’ parent company, The Beverage Information Group, and the ten leading California wine brands saw a 3.7 percent increase from 2009 to 2010. Though Napa and Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay continue to sell strongly, other regions, styles and varieties in the state are becoming increasingly popular in restaurants and bars. Many operators were happy to suggest ways to include California’s lesser-known offerings and emerging regions, while still maintaining customers’ tried and true favorites.
On many lists, the most prolific white wine option still tends to be the grape for which California has been most famous, but the popularity of the style may be slightly waning. “California Chardonnay will always be a top seller, but we are getting fewer requests for the big buttery, fruit-forward toasty style that has dominated for so long,” declares Kiley Wynne Efron, owner of Taverna in Jacksonville, Florida. The 107-seat Italian-focused restaurant carries five or six California wines by the glass priced $7 to $11, and close to twenty bottles priced $28 to $80.
Though it’s certainly still well represented on wine lists, the unabashedly woody style of Chardonnay that has undergone extended malolactic fermentation may be falling a bit out of favor. Customers are learning that its high alcohol content and bold flavor profile can overwhelm many dishes—making it difficult to pair it with dinner. At Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, the 64-unit steakhouse chain, director of wine Maeve Pesquera believes California Chardonnay is losing ground slightly due to the popularity of some other white grapes. Since Fleming’s is headquartered in California, in-state wines are well represented on menus nationally, with almost sixty offerings by the glass priced from $6 to $22, and bottles started at $65 and rising sharply for boutique bottles. “Fleming’s 100,” a list of 100 wines available by the glass, easily allows guest experimentation, as wine flights of two-ounce pours of by the glass offerings. Pesquera says this promotion allows guests to easily “step out of their comfort zone.”
An Eye to Value
Lesser-known grapes and appellations can also provide operators with good deals in a tough economy. “It’s a value economy right now—folks won’t necessarily pay for the appellation,” notes Tylor Field III, vice president of wine and spirits for the 77-unit Chicago-based Morton’s the Steakhouse.
Single vineyard designations and extended time spent in oak barrels can translate to high prices for oaked chardonnay, which Field cites as a reason for consumers to seek other options in this economy. He points to the increasing trend of releasing wines labeled with indications like “Central Coast,” “Sonoma Coast” and the generic “California,” whose grapes can be sourced from across the entire state.“During the recession, a lot of other varietals and grape sources were introduced with lower cost winemaking methods and some have stuck.” Field has 20 California wines by the glass, priced $9.75 to $24.95, and 149 bottles priced $34 to more than $1,000. Morton’s “Well Done Whites” and “Rare Reds” sections by the glass highlight value brands. As an alternative California offering, Field may recommend the floral Terra D’Oro Moscato from Amador County, or Napa’s crisp J. Lohr “Carol’s Vineyard” Sauvignon Blanc.
California Sauvignon Blanc can either be stainless steel or barrel fermented, and the latter technique makes it akin to “Chardonnay light” with more tropical fruit and higher acidity. Sandy Block, vice president of beverage for Legal Sea Foods, the Boston-based, 33-unit seafood chain, believes the grape has made a comeback. Legal Sea Foods features five California Sauvignon Blancs by the bottle, including the 2009 Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc for $45.
Blends made from grapes native to France’s Rhône region are also gaining steam. Efron and her staff like to suggest cool climate California whites made with Rhône varietals, like the 2010 Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas Blanc for $38. “We look for California wines with a sense of place that demonstrate restraint and are less heavy handed,” she explains. “Harmonious bottles where all elements are in balance.”
Demonstrating a greater acceptance of Old World winemaking styles, blends are also taking off on many lists. On the red side, Cabernet Sauvignon is still king, but it’s increasingly found in bottles with other varietals. “Many folks are blending, with their lead being cabernet, and then filling out the rest with other varietals,” notes Field. “We are seeing an increase in good value blended reds using a variety of sourcing at good price points.”
Quality cabernet can add great tannic backbone, attractive notes of cedar and blackberry, and age-worthiness to a wine. Boosting it with merlot can soften it and ramp up fruit flavors, while cabernet franc can add violet notes. Morton’s offers sixteen Bordeaux-inspired, Meritage (rhymes with heritage) bottles, including Rodney Strong “Symmetry,” from the Alexander Valley, and Napa’s Franciscan Estate “Magnificat” (prices vary depending on market).
Meritage blends also have place on the wine list at Lacroix at The Rittenhouse Hotel, a progressive international 120-seat restaurant in Philadelphia. General manager and sommelier Eric Simonis carries selections like the Beaulieu Vineyards 2007 “Tapestry” ($150 a bottle), and the Trefethen 2006 “Double T” ($95 a bottle.) Lacroix has four California wines by the glass priced $8 to $19, and about 170 California bottles priced $35 to $520.
Just as white Rhône varietals result in interesting California whites, operators are also serving up classic Rhône red blends, including syrah, grenache and mourvèdre for cuvées in which the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Pesquera cites the Central Coast as a hotbed for quality red Rhône blends, like the Zaca Mesa 2007 Z Cuvée.
Block’s “wishful thinking” would like to see the popularity of red Rhône grapes expand even further. He carries three California Syrahs including the Beckmen 2007 “Purisima Mountain Vineyard” Syrah from the Santa Ynez Valley ($45 a bottle. He’s also partnered with Randall Graham of Bonny Doon for a mostly Grenache-based blend.
Italian Influence and Classic Pinots
California-Italian varietals like sangiovese and nebbiolo are also finding their niche. Producing wine with these grapes is a longstanding tradition in the state, as Italian immigrants brought over plantings of native varietals in the nineteenth century. Again, Pesquera gives a nod to the Central Coast, which has successfully experimented with varietals including Sangiovese. She believes their restrained use of oak and attention to these grapes has made them more interesting. Efron offers Caparone Winery Aglianico ($8 a glass and $32 a bottle) from Paso Robles, which she calls the best domestic Aglianico she has ever tasted.
And where does California Pinot Noir fit into the mix? Though it better thrives in the state’s cooler regions, it’s produced in warmer areas as well, which results in a riper, higher-alcohol style of wine. Some winemakers appeal to fans of big, bold reds like cabernet sauvignon by extracting as much fruit, color and tannin as possible, and though the resulting wines aren’t necessarily popular with many guests who gravitate toward big reds.
At Fleming’s pinot noir is second only to cabernet sauvignon in popularity for red wines by the glass, like the Mark West 2009 California Pinot Noir, and Migration 2009 by Anderson Valley’s Duckhorn Vineyards. Of Pinot Noir, Pesquera waxes that it’s, “Fickle and hard to grow, but when it’s good it’s sublime.”
Morton’s lists California Pinot Noirs mainly from cooler areas, including Acacia and Etude from Carneros. According to Field, these cooler microclimates are often able to draw out the grape’s signature minerality and acidity.
Pinot noir is well known, but guests may need a bit of coaxing to order one of the lesser-known California varietals or
sub-regions: that’s where staff training and education comes in. “Every Fleming’s has a wine manager whose main focus is to make wine approachable and fun for our guests.” To that end, wine managers conduct weekly tastings and seminars, and offer a comprehensive three-year wine education program.
At Legal Sea Foods, Block created wine education videos for staff, after which they need to pass an assessment and distributors come into locations for the first two months of a wine menu change, which occurs twice annually.
Even operators without the resources for such extensive wine programs can be sure employees are well versed about California wines. Simonis regularly tastes wines with staff and describes their characteristics, but always trains them to also listen to guests’ opinions about what they have ordered; Efron created the “Taverna Wine Bible,” which employees consult to glean descriptions and background information on winemakers and production for each wine on the list.
California continues to be the most prolific wine making state in the country. Whether guests are seeing a Bordeaux-inspired Meritage with a price to match, a wallet-friendly white blend, or anything in between, the state’s various regions and winemakers can deliver. As Pesquera puts it, “The great thing about winemaking in California is the variety of top-notch wines we can offer. It’s pretty amazing.”