SOMMELIERS TALK VALUE
It doesn't matter how fancy a restaurant is: Everyone loves to find a good value on the wine list. That's a point echoed by two of America's most accomplished wine directors—Rajat Parr of Michael Mina and the new RN74 in San Francisco, and Bernie Sun of Jean-Georges Management in New York. "You want your clients to come back," says Sun. "More so now than ever."
According to Sun, there are two things to remember when building value into a wine program, no matter what the economy is doing. First, he says, it's a business; the program has to make money. "Secondly, you want to bring something outstanding to your customer at an outstanding price."
In today's climate, that means seeking out wines that overdeliver in terms of quality. "It's about finding a premier cru that had better drink like a grand cru," says Sun. Additionally, Sun reports success with wines from Côte de Gascogne, white Rioja and Argentine malbecs. "I've added some to our lists, all under $30," he says. "So far, our guests have had a lot of fun with them."
Parr says that in offering value, he finds the best strategy is to look at classic examples of wines that show genuine typicity. "For me the greatest value in wine is Cru Beaujolais," he says. "You can't beat Foillard Morgon Côte du Py '07 or Lapierre Morgon '07 or Trenel St-Amour '07. These bottles give us all we want in wine. And there are a lot of great Loire wines around. Plus the Rhône and Germany."
The fact that buyers like Sun and Parr focus on lesser-known satellite appellations in France and elsewhere in Europe signals a shift away from higher-end wines, especially pricey wines from California that neither wine director sees as offering value. "Our current strategy is to pretty much stop buying high-end Napa cabernets (over $50 cost) and pay special attention to well-priced and balanced wines from Napa, since that's a big seller at our steakhouses," says Parr. "Suddenly we see more now than in the last few years."
Producers in Napa, he says, are responding to the economy by producing less at the top end and opting for second labels. Others, like Vinifera, a project from Tuck Beckstoffer, produce more modestly priced wines.
Another factor that influences value on restaurant wine lists is simply timing. "Most producers at this point don't want to have two vintages to sell," says Sun. "As a result, there are some great deals out there but you have to plan for them. When you have vintages that aren't collectors' vintages—after '05 in Bordeaux and Burgundy for instance, there's a lot of '06 and '07 in the market—you can pour things by the glass at price points you couldn't hit in the past." Parr agrees: "The '06 Burgundies are delicious and lovely to drink, and we can offer them here for around $100 (bottle price)."
Even with the number of deals to be had on the market, Parr and Sun exercise restraint in their choices. "There are two truths to putting together a wine list," says Parr. "You must understand what you love, and you must understand what other people love. There has to be some give."
"It's a job," says Sun. "You need to pick wine you can sell, even on days when you're not there. You can put a list together of stuff nobody's heard of, but how is the restaurant going to make money? As buyers, we have to work harder to find wines that offer real value, the diamonds in the rough."
—Wolfgang M. Weber