2017 Restaurant Poll Interview

Ben Teig of L.A.’s Redbird on Aged Spanish Wine, Durif by the glass and the Stigma of Sweetness

A self-proclaimed Spanish wine nerd, Ben Teig worked for José Andrés for years, serving as a sommelier and later wine buyer for the celebrity chef’s restaurants in both Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Now the wine director at Redbird—Neal Fraser’s eclectic, farmers market–fueled dining den in the former St. Vibiana Cathedral space—he’s turning guests on to underappreciated grape varieties from durif to tannat.

The 2013 Cobos ‘Bramare’ malbec on your list seems to be doing well, despite being more expensive than some of the cabernets…

It’s partially because we let people know it’s a great malbec that’s big and fruit-forward and that Paul Hobbs consults on that project. But it’s also on our banquet list, so that’s the main reason we sell so much of it. We have five private dining rooms in our restaurant, so there’s no end to private functions. We opened two new rooms at the end of the year—one can seat up to 85 and the other can seat up to 90. There’s a hospitality convention in town right now, and last night, one group bought out the whole main dining room of the restaurant, and we had four other private dinners going on at the same time. It was crazy. One party was drinking Barolo and Sancerre and another was drinking cab and chardonnay from California… Then another tore through my aligoté by the glass. Then they tore through the durif.

Yeah: All Saints Rutherglen Durif by the glass… That’s an oddball wine…

In my first somm job at Bazaar, the head somm put this on by the bottle. I sold it once in a while but didn’t really know much about it. When I finally tasted it, I was blown away. Durif is actually petite sirah, but [in Rutherglen, Australia] it’s such a different expression from what you get in the states. It has the fruit, but then it has these secondary and tertiary characteristics that you don’t find in young wines at all. It goes into this other level. There are a couple ways to sell it. Most of the time my staff will probably take the easy way out and just say it’s petite sirah. The other way is to ask the guest what they’re looking for: something big but not too tannic, with fruit but other characteristics… And some of the servers do enjoy explaining how it’s different.

We have a program in place where the staff gets to buy wines from us at cost. That way, they take that bottle home and learn about something new. It has also totally ruined their palates for cheap wine. They can’t abuse the policy; they can only get the same bottle once. But we want them to try, learn, and enjoy the same stuff that the guests area enjoying. It’s fun. Whenever I put a new wine on by the glass, I always get ‘Can I get that?’ from the staff.

Is that how you sell a ton of tannat by the glass?

So, my whole by-the-glass program is centered around not doing the traditional grape varieties. I don’t do pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot noir, or merlot by the glass. I have plenty of them by the bottle. So if you just want a glass of wine, you can try all these other amazing grapes from around the world that haven’t always been given their fair shot at the limelight. That tannat is great. It’s that full-bodied style that people like, from a great producer—Y. Rousseau—and they’re going for it. After they taste it, some even ask for a full bottle of it. I did the same thing with a carmenère from Chile. When I finally moved it off of the by-the-glass list, guests got really upset because they loved that carmenère. If I put a pinot noir on, it would cannibalize those sales. So instead, I’ll list a nero d’avola. If I just had that tannat by the bottle, how often would it sell? It wouldn’t. But put it on by the glass, and people try it and fall in love with it.

The López de Heredia wine listed in your top sellers is a 2004. Are people buying that because it’s a great deal for being an aged wine?

It’s funny. Most of the time people don’t even notice the vintage until I point it out to them. It’s right there, it’s the first thing listed… but they look at the wine and see that it’s tempranillo from Rioja, then they look at the price and they say, ‘Oh, that sounds good.’ When I verbally confirm it’s a 2004, they’re surprised. Then I pour it and they love it. But what happens next is cooler: The wine opens up… their food comes… When they try it with food, they’ll call me back to the table to tell me how phenomenal it is. They rave about it. A lot of people don’t realize that producers in Spain will hold back wines like that.

You list a Rivesaltes as a successful dessert wine pour, next to a Moscato d’Asti and a Port…

Moscato d’Asti and Port are the two most asked for dessert wines in general. Most people know Port, and some people will even ask for a glass of moscato with their meal before dessert if they want something sweeter. The Rivesaltes is a completely different story. It’s 100% macabeo… it’s amber in color… it has all the nuttiness you’d expect from a sherry, then on the midpalate, it goes to coffee and butterscotch almost like a Madeira, and then on the finish it goes into red fruit… It’s the most interesting dessert wine I’ve had in a long time. The staff loves it, so that’s what they recommend a lot of the time. That said, the category is nowhere near the sales point where I would like it to be. I think it’s the stigma of sweetness. Americans say, ‘I don’t want anything sweet in my wine,’ which is bizarre because we drink so much soda, margaritas, and mojitos—some of the sweetest things out there. I’m starting to see people get over that with dessert wine, but it’s going to take some time. Like Cognac was saved by hip-hop, we need something to help it along.