Erik Liedholm is the wine director for Seattle chef John Howie’s restaurant group. He spoke with Luke Sykora about Seastar, a seafood-focused restaurant in Bellevue, where Liedholm saw wine sales reach new heights in 2016—his best year on record.
A high point for wine sales
Is it because we raised prices? Is it because of more expensive bottles are being sold? It’s kind of a combination of everything. Purchasing costs have certainly gone up, so we adjust for that, but the market and the consumer seem to have adjusted for that, too. Our location is near Microsoft and some other tech companies, so we were in a little bit of a bubble during the recession, but we’ve seen increased sales—and increased guest numbers all across the board. We’re also getting more people through the door.
The house merlot outselling all other wines
Guests try it and they’re like: Wow, I can’t believe it’s that price! [It’s the John Howie cuvée, made by Mark McNeilly of Mark Ryan Winery.] Typically, Mark’s wines are more in the $90 to $120 range [on a restaurant list] for his Bordeaux variety blends and his syrahs. We pick the lots we want to try, and put together the blend, and he knows he’s going to get a commitment—among all of our restaurants—for 10 cases a week, so I can do this on volume rather than margin. Sadly, for 2014 we’re taking a break from merlot. It was not just working; it was a hot year, and the wine was flabby and one-dimensional. But he had this cab, a lot of it from Pepper Bridge [one of the best sites in Walla Walla], and it was just phenomenal. So we decided to blend a cabernet with the ’14 vintage rather than do another merlot. In the right conditions and with the right winemaker, Washington merlot is just a really delicious wine. I wanted to create a little mini-renaissance. Washington should be making more merlot, 2014 notwithstanding.
How did the Poet’s Leap Columbia Valley Riesling make your top ten?
That is definitely a staff-led wine. It was a lot of pre-shift tastings with food. I tell the servers: Don’t always default to a somm if a guest asks a question about wine. Just try this, if it’s a dish from the raw bar or something suited toward riesling.
A lot of guests, when they’re travelling, want to have an experience of something local, and locavores are looking for white wine from Washington that’s delicious. There’s not a lot of it, but Poet’s Leap is high acid, has good structure, and it speaks to riesling—there are not too many white wines from Washington that can say that.
Why was the Elio Perrone Bigaro, a sparkling bracchetto/moscato blend, your biggest new success?
It’s kind of like a strawberry Creamsicle. And it’s done well because it replaced a wine we sold out of, the Renardat-Fâche Bugey Cerdon. We always paired that with the hot and sour soup, so I did a tasting a lot of wines that were somewhat similar. This was the closest one I found, and it was also less expensive. We bring a little bit out with the hot and sour soup, almost like a garnish. It’s hard to pair wine with soup because texturally the wine is almost redundant, but the sweetness and the slight spritz with that spicy soup is quite an experience.
What’s the best restaurant meal you had in the Seattle area this year?
Well, we have a seven-month-old right now…but my wife and I get out every so often. Altura has been a really great experience in terms of food—really remarkable. I think it’s the best food in Seattle. The chef was at Acquerello [in San Francisco] years and years ago, and they opened up this little restaurant in Capitol Hill. The restaurant is far from grand—the food is fancy but the restaurant itself isn’t. You can even eat at the bar. He’s really good with offal—the sweetbreads and foie gras are perfectly done. When we want to indulge, we go there to get our arteries clogged.