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Just as you suspected: Sommeliers have a stash

Times Staff Writer

WHEN interior decorator Steve Ross arrived at Grace on a busy Saturday night, he pressed sommelier Eduardo Porto Carreiro with his usual question: Anything available that isn’t on the restaurant’s wine list?

Porto Carreiro, knowing Ross to be a Napa Valley Cabernet fan, smiled and whispered that he had six bottles of Bob Foley’s 2002 Switchback Ridge Cab, a new wine from the acclaimed winemaker for Pride Mountain Vineyard. The sommelier had kept the unexpected allocation of Foley’s wine off the list, stashing the bottles for his favorite regular customers.

Off-the-list wines are one of the restaurant world’s best-kept little secrets. Nearly every top-flight dining room has a stash, and under certain conditions will bring a bottle out of hiding ... but not for everyone.

Sometimes these off-list wines are allocated, which means that the restaurant can only obtain a limited number of bottles of a particular vintage. Or they may be the last bottle or two in the restaurant’s cellar of a rare old wine. In other cases, certain wines that belong to the restaurant owner, not the restaurant, are handled separately from listed wines. And then there are the experiments, selections that a sommelier isn’t certain will have broad appeal.

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So who gets to buy these under-the-table wines? Access to a restaurant’s unlisted wines isn’t just about waving money and asking. It’s about how you ask, whether the sommelier senses that a particular wine will be the perfect match for your meal and whether he thinks you’ll appreciate it.

Sommeliers are wine lovers. They pull bottles off the list to save them for people who they know have a special interest or particular knowledge about the winemaker or region. Often they are trying to make an end run around the big spenders who they feel order for show rather than pleasure.

“Most sommeliers who put together their own list feel some ownership of the wines,” says Ross. “They don’t want to let a hard-to-come-by wine go to someone who won’t appreciate it.”

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It’s not just about money

AT Ortolan, sommelier Aaron Brown always keeps a few special-occasion bottles off the list for customers with a keen interest in wine, a “few things we’ve gotten on consignment or at auction,” he says. Right now those wines include a few older vintages of Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes and some German ice wines. “With a big spender who doesn’t know anything about wine, putting a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem on the table is like giving a Porsche to a 16-year-old,” Brown says.

So how does he decide who should get the keys to the Porsche? “You know in a second who knows wines and appreciates them,” he says. “Their faces light up. They are enthusiasts. They can make your night with how excited they get.”

Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino, agrees. “People like to ask for wines off of the list; they like to think that you are hiding something unique. I can tell if this is someone who is just fishing for some kind of trophy.” When Selvaggio senses that attitude, he says he tends to keep his wine treasures locked away.

This insiders’ game takes more than wine sense. You usually have to pay dearly to play.

If you have to ask the price, you don’t know what you are doing, says Ross. “Price doesn’t come up. If I’m asking for something not on the list, I probably have a pretty good idea of what it goes for.”

Says Selvaggio, “If you are looking for a bargain, it’s not appropriate to ask for off-the-list wines.”

Still, it’s scarcity, not price, that makes a wine a treasure worth controlling. At Providence, general manager Donato Poto has a few bottles of 2003 Durell Vineyard Tor Chardonnay that he is keeping off the list. At $80, it’s far from his most expensive white wine. “Tor is a hot little thing right now,” Poto says. “Sometimes you have allocated wines [like Tor] that you’ll run out of too quickly if you put them on the list.”

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Small-producer wines that aren’t allocated may be in short supply too. Poto says he takes those wines off the list when he’s down to a couple of bottles. “That way, when people come back and ask for the wine that they had before, we will still have a bottle for them,” he says.

With 85,000 bottles in his cellar at Valentino, Selvaggio is never at a loss for something special to offer diners. But during inventory, he frequently finds single bottles of old, rare wine that, for whatever reason, are no longer in his inventory. Right now his “library cellar” includes a 1918 Chateau Haut Brion, a 1947 Borgogno Barolo and a 1947 Sebastiani Cabernet.

“We have only two or three bottles of Mayacamas and Pride Mountain, some BV Private Reserve from the 1970s. So we don’t put it on the list,” he says. “There will always be the special customer or wine buff who will appreciate something unique.”

But it’s not just old wines that can be found off-list -- sometimes it’s wines that are too young to be on the list. Though they may not really be ready to drink, immature wines can be compelling for wine collectors. Someone who is curious how a particular celebrated wine is maturing in the bottle might prefer to taste that wine at a restaurant than open one of the precious bottles in his own cellar.

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The sommelier’s decision

SPAGO sommelier Kevin O’Connor estimates that once or twice a week his staff is queried about off-the-list wines. “I call the shots,” he says. “I come up with a million lines for ‘no.’ ”

The only unlisted wines at Spago are those O’Connor believes are too young to be on the list. On the occasions he’s gone against his better judgment to please a customer, he has almost always regretted the decision. It’s painful, he says, to watch “one of my wines” poured before it matures.

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Patina is another restaurant that buys wines when they are first released by a winery, storing them for several years so they will be fully developed when diners order them. Sommelier Eric Espuny is not conflicted about pulling a cork earlier than what’s advised, and is open to inquiries. “It is in the interest of any customer to ask what else we might have that’s not on the list,” he says.

Espuny also has what he calls “sommelier wines” that are not on Patina’s list. These are “wines I tasted for the first time and then bought a case to see how our clientele would respond,” he says. “A discovery wine.” He often suggests these bottles to people who show an interest in them, if the wines happen to pair well with the food they’ve ordered.

As a practical matter, publicizing some wines by putting them on the list can create problems. If Porto Carreiro had put the Switchback Ridge on Grace’s list, he says all six bottles would have been gone in one night to trophy hunters more interested in boasting about buying the wine than in delighting in drinking it. That would disappoint diners who actually would appreciate them but couldn’t get them because the allocation was sold out.

Fair enough. But how does Porto Carreiro separate the true wine lovers from the showoffs? “By the way people approach me,” he says. While he doesn’t believe in keeping a wine from a customer who specifically asks for it, he admits to having a heavy heart on occasion. “When you see someone not appreciate a wine, it’s a bummer,” he says.


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