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Sommeliers on What Sells, What Doesn't, and What They'd Buy With Unlimited Cash

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Welcome to Vintage America, a column in which Eater Wine Editor Talia Baiocchi takes a hyperfresh look at all things wine-related.

Restaurant Marc Forgione, New York. [Photo: Marc Forgione / Facebook]

In honor of nothing in particular, Eater decided to take the temperature around the country — from down south in Atlanta and Austin to up north in Boston — to see what is flying off wine lists and what is stuck sleeping in the cellar. Here, now, June Rodil from Congress in Austin, Texas; Eric Railsback of RN74 in San Francisco, CA; Jeff Hagley of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta, Georgia; and Colleen Hein of Eastern Standard Kitchen in Boston, MA; and Matthew Conway of Restaurant Marc Forgione in New York, on what's up in their respective cities.


June Rodil | Congress - Austin, Texas

Top selling wines: Domestic cabernet sauvignon. This is Texas. Red meat and a glass of cabernet sauvignon is as classic as Paul Newman. Pinot noir. This is the great mediator, and generally a great option to balance out an array of dishes at a table. Chardonnay. Because there is such wide range of styles, it plays to many palates; guests also seem to be able to communicate exactly what style they are looking for.
How has that changed over the years? I think changes have to do with quality, the class of producers, and the regions these wines are coming from. Rather than seeing a Napa-dominated cabernet sauvignon list, you see lists with wines from Sonoma and Washington, Australia, South Africa, and, of course, the Old World. There is also, in general, more attention paid to wines with a sense of place, rather than innocuous lists saturated with retail-heavy options or points-driven brands.
Top selling high-end wine(s)? The "Elite" Domestics (i.e. high-end, allocated reds from producers like Bond, Araujo, and Cayuse). And Burgundy, but probably because it's what I hand sell. In terms of volume, Grand Cru White Burgundy sells the most, then Premier Cru reds, followed by Grand Cru Reds.
What doesn't sell? Alsace wines are a dying breed in this market. Fewer and fewer producers are being represented in Texas and the ones that are happen to be at premium costs, which means consumers are less apt to take a chance on them.
Wine(s), region, that you no longer to have a hard time selling? Burgundy. Chardonnay and pinot noir are popular. Once you inform someone that the best examples come from Burgundy you usually change their life. And rosé. Bravo, Austin, TX. I have four selections by the glass of still rosé alone and we scream for the next vintage to arrive once we run out.
If you had an unlimited amount of cash, which wine from your list would you choose? It's a hussy move, but I would go for the '98 Krug Clos du Mesnil. Other options would be: '04 Domaine Leroy Vosne Romanee and the Mag of '07 JJ Prum Wehlener Sonnenhur Auslese (in about 20 years).
Any trends or diner preferences/habits specific to your city? Texas wines. The wine production in Texas is growing, but more importantly, the quality has been on the increase in the past few years.
[Photo: J. Ivan Figeroa]


Eric Railsback | RN74 - San Francisco, California

Top selling wines: Pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet are still the top sellers due to marketing. However people are definitely branching out to find indigenous varietals that have a great story behind them.
How has that changed over the years? With the down turn in the economy, lots of people have been turning to lesser known wine regions to find value. It was been exciting to turn people on to inexpensive wines from the Languedoc, Beaujolais, Rhône, Austria and Corsica. In the past I would really have to work to get people to not drink pinot grigio, chard and cabernet.
Are there any wines, regions, grapes, etc. that you purposely leave off the list? We don't have any pinot grigio or zinfandel but instead carry many wines that have similar attributes but are more more food friendly. To replace pinot grigio in usually suggest gruner veltliner and for zinfandel I try and get people to drink montepulciano or something from the southern Rhone. I used to see people sitting down and ordering a bottle of cabernet right off the bat, but nowadays more people are thinking about what they are going to eat and then deciding on a wine.
Top selling high-end wine(s): Of course we are a Burgundy house, but in general I feel like people are turning down Bordeaux and other cult wines of California to drink Burgundy. The 100-point wines still move in the retail world but not nearly as much in restaurants. It is also a mission of mine to get people to drink more Côte Rôtie and Cornas.
What doesn't sell? Very high-end Napa wines have seemed to slow to (almost) a complete stop. I feel like the bubble has burst and its very hard to create a new unknown brand and sell the first vintage for over $100 cost. With the slow down in the market wineries have had to rethink pricing to stay competitive. Those who are slow in seeing that value is a necessity will quickly be out of the game.
Best value on your list right now and why? The 2010 wine from the northern Rhônes are killer values, especially from appellations like St. Joseph and Crozes Hermitage. These wines can be cellared for many years and are very consistent. Gonon St. Joseph, Graillot Crozes Hermitage, Faury St. Joseph can all be found on a wine list in the $65-$80 price range and can stand up to bottles more then double the price. I also am finding many exciting wines from the Languedoc that offer great value. The price of land there is so cheap that it allows for many young, up-and-coming producers to start new quality driven projects.
If you had an unlimited amount of cash, which wine from your list would you choose? I guess I would try the 1937 La T?che, but I am just as happy to drink a bottle of 2002 Raveneau Chablis for a much smaller fee. For me it's much more fun to find amazing wines that don't cost a fortune.
Wines you are constantly seeing on SF wine lists? I'm seeing a lot more wines from the Jura popping up in San Francisco and Ganevat is one of the hottest producers making wines from native varieties. It is also fun to see some great local producers that have really started to build cult status in SF, like Arnot-Roberts, Wind Gap, and Tyler Winery.
[Photo: Dustin Wilson]


Jeff Hagley | Restaurant Eugene - Atlanta, Georgia

Top selling wines: American wines sell. Bergström Cumberland Reserve Pinot Noir, Honig Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Walter Hansel Chardonnays.
Are there any wines, regions, grapes, etc. that you purposely leave off the list? South American wines are tough for me to commit to. Yes I know that they can produce good wines, but they also produce a lot of wine. I have tasted so many bitter and astringent behemoth wines from South America that I generally avoid them. There is also a huge gap between the every day drinking wine and the truly special wine. Those truly special wines from South America (think Almaviva) more often than not, so expensive that they price themselves out of use. Most of the rest are around $12 bottle and that doesn't have as much of an application in my restaurant.
Top selling high-end wine(s): Mica Cabernet Sauvignon, Beaux Freres Pinot Noir 'Beaux Freres Vineyard'’, and Red Car Wine Company Pinot Noir 'The Aphorist'.
What do you think is the best value on your list right now and why?
If we are talking about bottle selections, the embodiment of the value ideal, I would recommend three producers of Oregon pinot noir: Trisaetum, Ayres and Big Table Farm. I would take those wines to battle with me anytime.
If you had an unlimited amount of cash, which wine from your list would you choose? Domaine Serene Clos du Soleil Chardonnay, Alysian Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir.
Any trends or diner preferences/habits specific to your city?
Atlanta is a city inhabited by transplants. The city had a major population boom that began in the 80s and it hasn't really slowed down. Everyday, we see new people and styles in Atlanta that bring new concepts to the market.
[Photo: Beall & Thomas Photography]


Colleen Hein | Eastern Standard Kitchen - Boston, MA

Top selling wines: 2010 Thomas Labaille 'Les Monts Damnes' Sancerre, Loire $47; 2010 Marcel Lapierre, Morgon $40; 2009 Soter Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley $46. These three are consistently at the top of the pack due to current popularity in style and name recognition on our list. As a fast-paced, high-volume restaurant, consumers tend to choose what they know.
Top selling high-end wine(s): NV Jacques Lassaigne Blanc de Blancs 'Les Vignes de Montgueux' Ambonnay $83; 2006 Chateau Simone Palette Grand Cru, Provence $85; 2006 Bond 'Matriarch', Napa $185.
What doesn't sell? A few of our high-end German wines, as well as moderate to high-end non-Champagne sparkling wines (though there are only a few) tend to sleep on the list.
Wine(s), region, category, that's become easier to sell? Rosé wine and Beaujolais. The versatility of rosé wine, the variety of styles, and the spirit of rosé in our brasserie setting has become something unique to our wine program in the city. The second is Beaujolais. We currently have an entire section on our list dedicated to the region. The diversity of expressions from the different crus, lend themselves to a multitude magical food and wine pairings.
Any prejudices or misconceptions you hear on a regular basis? There is a ceaseless association of rosé wine and white zinfandel. We take pride in proving this notion wrong with a taste of a dry rosé wine. But if we do have a guest looking for white zinfandel, we'll have them try one of our more dense fruit-driven rosé wines whose color allows for a visual association.
Best value on your list right now? Grower Champagne. We also love to offer two or three fine and rare offerings with ample bottle age at a very low mark-up. They are in print for the wine enthusiast that knows the estate and vintage and realizes the value.
If you had an unlimited amount of cash, which wine from your list would you choose? Right now, it would have to be the 1989 Dom. Mongeard-Mugneret Grand Cru 'Vieilles Vignes' Echézeaux for $240. Incredible producer, site, and vintage in the Côtes de Nuits. I adore good Burgundy with ample bottle age.
Wines you are constantly seeing on wine lists in Boston? The Movia wines of Slovenia, COS in Sicily, and the Etna wines of Frank Cornilessen to name a few. Not a bad problem to have in Boston!
Any trends or diner preferences/habits specific to your city?
Consumers seems to be very invested in knowing the ABV before ordering here. They are seeking out, in particular, beverages with low ABV to allow for a more "sessionable" imbibing rather than being hit over the head with alcohol.
[Photo: Melissa Ostrow]


Matthew Conway | Marc Forgione, New York

Top selling wines: The list changes so frequently that it's hard to name a specific wine, but — and I sort of hate to say this — malbec sells and so does New Zealnad sauvignon blanc.
Are there any wines, regions, grapes, etc. that you purposely leave off the list? At one point in my career I did boycott things, but I have found ways to support certain regions or producers. The one thing I do avoid, or boycott on the list is oak. I think I only have two wines on the list that really see a perceivable amount of oak. If someone comes in and asks for an oaky chardonnay, we have Kistler on the high-end, but nothing on the low end. We always find a way to make that person happy, but I am not into oaky wines.
Anything that's particularly difficult to sell?There are small geeky things that I have that doesn't always make its way onto the list, like some of the Dard & Ribo wines, for example. A lot of it is off the list and reserved for industry people and regulars who are into that sort of stuff. As for what's on the list, it's a small list and to be honest I've put wines on the list like, you know, gaglioppo from southern Italy that I thought people wouldn’t buy, but I really can't find anything that won't move. Some of that has to do with numbers and the size of the list (around 100 selections).
What's become easier to sell in your eight years as a sommelier? It's much easier to sell Spanish wines now than it was when I was at Café Gray. They still aren't the rage but people are starting to accept that Spain makes quality, affordable wine. Txacoli has helped. You see a lot of restaurants with good beverage directors putting txakoli on by the glass and introducing people to Basque wine. I think the popularity of those wines helped open people's eyes to Spain.
Best value on your list? I reward people for spending more money on my list. The more you spend the lower the markup is. So, a $100 bottle of wine is going to be a better value, price-wise, that a $40 bottle.
If money was no object, what would you choose to drink from your list? Depends on what I am eating, but I would probably start with a glass of rose, then move to a bottle of Dard & Ribo St. Joseph Blanc which is around $70-80 bucks per bottle, then one of the reserve Burgundies from the list, and I’d end with a Banana Jameson (Jameson infused with bananas, strained after 3 days, and served with one large ice cube).
[Photo: Jason Basso]

Talia Baiocchi is Eater's Wine Editor. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi and over at Eater NY where she covers the treacherous world of New York wine lists via her Decanted column.

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