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Cult wines at mass-market prices
Last month Michael Jordan, master sommelier and general manager of Disneyland's Napa Rose Restaurant in Anaheim, was approached by a local wine distributor with an offer he found difficult to refuse, and just as difficult to comprehend.
The distributor was selling one of the most sought-after "cult" Cabernets in the Napa Valley, the sort of wine that routinely sold at auction for more than $600 a bottle, a wine so scarce that only a tiny group of restaurants in the country could ever hope to get just six bottles. Even among cult Cabernets, this was a crown jewel.
Naturally, Jordan was interested, and asked how much he could have. The answer stunned him: "Up to 10 cases," he was told. "Las Vegas didn't take their allocation."
There, in a nutshell, is the state of the wine business in restaurants. As kitchens teeter on closure, as layoffs loom and the economic downturn threatens long-standing establishments and their outstanding wine lists, the market is more frenetic and freewheeling than it has ever been.
Even as sommeliers are feeling obliged to reduce their inventories, they're being offered unheard-of deals on rare wines, now suddenly plentiful. Case prices are plunging: Wines that used to be out of reach can now be had for about a third less than a year ago.
The new sweet spot
For the dining public, that means that even though your dining dollar may have shrunk, you're probably getting more wine value with it than you have in the last three years. All of this leaves many sommeliers, on behalf of their guests, optimistic. "This may be the reshuffling of the deck that will stratify wine into prices that remain," Jordan says. "I think a whole lot of meals are going to taste a whole lot better."
Despite industry-wide jitters, Southern California's best wine restaurants remain fairly busy, and though wine sales aren't exactly record-setting, they're much better than expected.
Most sommeliers report a modest downward shift in what's known as "the sweet spot" -- the price range where most consumers are comfortable spending. Many but not all report that the sweet spot has fallen into the $50-to-$60 range, where it had once been more like $80. But with the deals being offered by distributors, that hasn't been a difficult adjustment for sommeliers to make.
At Palate Food + Wine, in Glendale, the sweet spot has more or less stayed the same, according to Steve Goldun, partner and wine director. But he has noticed that his regular customers are feeling out the lower-priced wines -- forgoing a vintage Burgundy, say, for a wine from Mencia, in Spain. Some aren't exactly comfortable with trading down, and actually need a little hand-holding to get there. "They want to know, is this a good wine for $30, when they're used to spending $50," he says. "They didn't used to ask."
On most wine lists, the lower end has been there all along, waiting to be discovered. Wolfgang Puck's swank steakhouse Cut naturally has its share of high-end Bordeaux and Napa Cabernets, but beverage director Dana Farner has offered well-priced values on her list from Day 1. "You see the expensive wines on our list and assume that's all we sell," she says. "But I've always had the $30 white Riojas, the $45 Washington Syrahs, the $40 Australian Cabs. People didn't used to notice those wines, but they definitely do now."
Interestingly, even in the current economic climate, diners still seem reluctant to buy the least expensive wines on the list. Sommeliers are at a loss to explain it -- these wines are just as painstakingly selected as the others on the list, of course -- but suggest that when dining among friends, people don't want to appear cheap.
Of course, there has been some belt-tightening across the board; many sommeliers report trimming their inventory. "I was kind of on a diet for the whole month of January," Farner says. For some, that process has been relatively painless: Barbara Marie of the Water Grill has cut way back on her Bordeaux and Napa Cabernet selections, which aren't particularly compatible with her seafood-driven menu anyway. Others are bringing cellared wines into rotation sooner than they might have.
But these deprivations are being supplemented by some tremendous offers in the marketplace. "We are seeing some great deals," says Mozza's David Rosoff. "Vendors are willing to work with us if we take an aggressive position on something."
Indeed, slower restaurant sales (nationwide, but especially in Las Vegas) coupled with a generally large vintage in 2005 and the huge proliferation of luxury brands from California and elsewhere have led to an unprecedented oversupply of high-end wine in the pipeline.
All of this has led to plenty of synergy between buyers and sellers. "Everyone got the memo," says Eduardo Porto-Carreiro, the wine buyer at Grace. "The producers, they lower their prices and say to the distributors, 'Here are the deals.' The distributors go to the restaurants and say, 'Here's what I can do if you move this,' and we pass it on to our customers. It's trickle-down, but it works back up. Wineries need to move wine, distributors need cash flow. Everyone has to work together for it to make sense, and for now, it is."
Glasses half full
The most dramatic changes in wine offerings are plain to see in a restaurant's by-the-glass program. That's the high-traffic zone of most wine lists, and it's heavily targeted by wineries, distributors and importers as the best opportunity to move their wine into the fast lane.
For diners, the options are unprecedented, and the deals are exceptional. Even highly sought-after California wines can now be had for a fraction of their original asking price. "I have Cabernets I used to sell at $150 a bottle that I can now pour for $20 a glass," says Chris Miller, wine director at Spago.
Meanwhile, tasting flights -- at wine bars in particular -- are getting even more interesting, as buyers come into more affordable options. At BottleRock, general manager George Skorka often has flights that feature a flagship -- a once-rare, highly sought-after wine -- to draw people toward lesser known and often more affordable points of comparison.
Skorka has also fashioned "flight cards" with intricate, occasionally grandiloquent wine descriptions (like the German Scheurebe described as "redolent of apricots and lemon grass"), which guests can take away to remember the wines they've tried, adding to what Skorka describes as the entertainment value of the visit. "Now they have the story, they can tell people," he says. And he's especially excited about the new beer flights, which come in at a fraction of the price of the wine flights. And yes, beer-pairing tasting menus are in the works as well.
By-the-glass programs can encourage diners to try wines they may not have tasted before. At Water Grill, Marie's by-the-glass sales have improved dramatically since she began selling half-glass (3-ounce) pours for her chef's tasting menus. Giving that extra option was enough to inspire some experimentation. "There's more variety, and people think of it as an opportunity to try something," she says.
Miller says that at Spago, people are tending to be a little less adventurous in their choices, so he makes sure that the tried-and-true are prominent alongside his more adventurous selections. "It's not necessarily that people are spending a whole lot less, but they're spending on things they're comfortable with. They want to be sure they're getting what they expect."
"People might be spending a little less," says Jordan of Napa Rose, "but in terms of quality, they're still trading up. They might skip a dessert now and then to have one glass of something really primo, a wine they know they'll really enjoy."
And one they'll come back for. "If you're tuned in to what your guest needs," Jordan says, "you can really build your business in times like these."