May 2023 will mark 16 years for Aldo Sohm at the helm of Le Bernardin’s wine program. Chef Eric Ripert’s seafood mecca provides plenty of opportunity for creative wine pairings, but since the pandemic, Sohm has had to reinvent his ten-second approach to reading a table. “You don’t want to recommend a $70 bottle if the person wants to order one for $1000, and vice versa,” he says. But where once he would look at the guest’s watch, or how they were dressed, over the past two years, he’s found that no longer works. “You can’t do that anymore, it’s impossible.” The restaurant world has been turned upside down, and Sohm, acknowledged as one of the greatest sommeliers in the world, has had his old-school perspective challenged any number of times. Working with a team of eight sommeliers and a list of 900 bottles, Sohm is coming into 2023 with a fresh viewpoint. —Joshua Greene
Pre-pandemic, you told us that pricing was holding even for food and wine at Le Bernardin. This year, you told us that pricing for both is up about 20%. When did wine prices from your suppliers begin to rise, and are those rises focused on any particular categories?
It’s hard to say. A specific example: I’m from Europe, kind of old-school. When we reopened in September 2020, my team put on a Chablis for $25. I said, “Are you out of your mind, $25 for a glass of Chablis? You can’t be serious.” Then I went on a research tour, and saw the cheapest glass of Chablis was $20 at Balthazar; everything else was $25, $27 or $30. I was officially old. So I came to terms with that. Chef did the cost analysis, he compared May 2022 prices with October 2021. A case of limes was something like $34 in October 2021, then $139 in May 2022. Avocados, it was even worse. He started laughing, “Now I’m telling people not to order avocado; caviar is cheaper.”
In wine, you don’t have to go to Burgundy; go to natural wines and it’s a totally different landscape in pricing. I think of a 22-year-old diner, that you don’t have that person with a $200 bottle of wine. But you cannot read the client anymore. Here’s a stupid example—a wakening process for me where I got slapped:
A family, they were dressed in sweaters, with two kids. He said, “We’d like to have a Burgundy—something good, but don’t go crazy.” A dangerous thing. I asked, “What is not crazy?” “Something decent, between $500 and $600.” I thought, Holy Cannoli. So that’s when I realized it’s very dangerous to try to read the client.
During the pandemic, people had a lot of time and they educated themselves, they had nothing to do so they all started drinking.
Pre-pandemic, white wine and sparkling wine made up 70 percent of your wine sales. This year, it was 59%, while red increased from 30 to 40%. What’s driving that?
The high-caliber wines… The amount of Romanée-Conti. If you sell a $50,000 bottle of wine, your sales of red wine go up; the one bottle screws up the entire picture. This is the price of some of the red wines. I locked up all the Liger-Belairs; I didn’t want to sell them and made them as unattractive as I could—Nuits-St-Georges from Liger-Belair for $3,000, I thought no one would buy that. I had four bottles, they were gone in two weeks. It’s unbelievable. If you mark it up at a normal price, everything will be gone right away.
Pre-pandemic, you noted that 90% of customers ordered wine with dinner. This year, 85%. What are they ordering instead?
We have a significant increase in cocktail consumption. Look at price developments on whiskey, look at price developments on Bourbon.
By the way, if I have a new life, I would only go into Tequila; no doubt about it. Chef is very involved in City Harvest, I am too, but not to the same capacity. We auctioned off a dinner for 20 people with John Legend coming to the buyer’s house for 1.1 million. It was so successful, the bidding just kept going, so we made two out of it; both went for 1.1 million. At the second house, they had this beautiful open wine cellar with DRC and Roumier, you name it. Then I walk into the back kitchen and I see rows of Clase Azul, rows of Casa Dragones and José Cuervo Reserva de Familia.
With the wine, people were asking, “Is this a good vintage?” On tequila, even the ladies are chugging these things, no questions asked. They were partying. The women were dancing. I often call this ‘drinking flow’: You sit in front of a bottle of wine with your partner, and then, suddenly, you need another bottle after the appetizer. They were chugging that tequila. It was incredible to learn; I learned a lot that night.
Your list seems to have grown from 800 before the pandemic to 900 wines now. Which categories have benefitted from this increase and which categories are trimmed back?
I have an Alsatian sommelier now, so we enhanced Alsace a little bit. Champagne grew because my team loves Champagne. I personally think it fits very well here at Le Bernardin. And we’ve added more from Austria—all over, but more in Styria, because of Tement, and a couple of natural producers, Muster and Tscheppe. Those are great wines—natural but great. I spent quite some time with [Andreas Tscheppe] and his brother and learned about natural wine. Often, some of these natural wines are really screwed.
You mention Gimonnet Cuis as a successful new wine and Bollinger 2012 as a staff favorite. What drove the success of Gimonnet, if not staff suggesting it?
The Gimonnet we pour by the glass. And it’s doing so well, the wine is in such pretty shape and the feedback from the clients is incredibly good. The Bollinger Grande Année is an interesting phenomenon. On the Chef’s Tasting menu, we have a scallop tartare with a sauce marinière and a spoon of caviar. That Champagne, it’s a match made in heaven. And here’s the other thing: Bollinger, they don’t define themselves by residual sugar to make the wine more opulent. I like Bollinger quite a bit because it’s a richer version of Champagne, but it comes from the farming and production, not from dosage.
You noted that sales of lesser-known wines increased by 20% this past year. What are the factors driving that, whether more listings, staff enthusiasm, customer requests for something new?
I counteract a bit; I told my team not to sell certain wineries. To stop pushing these wines because they are really hard to get; they are irreplaceable. The majority came from seven pages, Meursault, Puligny, Chassagne, Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle, Vosne and Nuits-St-Georges. The team is excited to sell these wines, but as a buyer, you get two or three bottles. That made it very difficult for us. That’s when I told them, “Try to get people away from those villages. Sell this wine or sell that region.” It was a massive problem. It was labor-intensive; it took time. To shape a team takes two years; post-pandemic, three years. And now, I noticed if I sell certain wines, the team comes along. Like the Vinothek Reserve Sauvignon Blanc from Tement.
Typically, people have a certain picture of sauvignon blanc. A general consumer sees New Zealand or Napa. Others see Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé. In 2020, I spent a lot of time in Austria, I traveled to Sudsteiermark and saw how good that winery had become. So, I asked [the importer] to bring in some other wines, like a welschriesling, the Weinstock, from the Zieregg vineyard, very old vines. Plus they make a Vinothek Reserve Sauvignon. Before the pandemic, I bought that wine and it was expensive, close to $380 on the wine list. The team asked me, “Why did we buy this wine?” They didn’t want to sell sauvignon blanc. I said, “You can’t stereotype it.” At Thanksgiving, I brought a bottle home, and served it with striped bass tartare with a little black truffle, and with that wine it was incredible. That wine has the energy of a high-end grand cru Burgundy, but it’s not loud or in your face. They saw that and all of a sudden that wine was gone.
We had poured also Tement’s regular sauvignon blanc, because I have a hard time to put New Zealand on our list because it’s too much for our food. And with the frost problems, you can’t get Sancerre. The new 2021, the Kalk and Kreide—that’s a lot of bang for your buck.
The young generation in Austria and Germany, they’re on fire.
This is a W&S web exclusive. Get access to all of our feature stories by signing up today.