The top ten you’ve shared with us is pretty straightforward—and then you say you recommend a scheurebe with crab. What sort of new terrain are you exploring?
We’re focused on wines from California and France—I have a business to run—but I’m always looking for something off the wall, not so traditional, and trying to get it to work. I’ve enjoyed expanding into Spanish selections; they’re finally starting to get some traction. We’ve had great success with Slovenian whites, and with a dry furmint from Hungary, which works beautifully with our food, has all of the bouquet and floral qualities, but with the body of a pinot grigio. I can sell it to people looking for a crisp bright chardonnay.
How do you get guests into this new terrain?
To get them there I tend to sell them on the wine first and the location second, and that’s very helpful with pinot noir, for example. When I know what they’re having and I can find them a wine. Later in the conversation we talk about where it’s from, whether it’s a German pinot or from Chile.
Sometimes it’s kind of like a ‘reveal’ at the table, like ‘and you wouldn’t believe it’s from BLANK.’ I used to carry a chenin blanc from India and loved pouring it by the glass, but I had to pour it blind. People tried it and I would say, ‘If you enjoy this, great. I’ll come back and talk about it later,’ and then I’d tell them what they’re drinking. I’ve sold Guadalupe Valley reds from Mexico in the same way.
And yet your best-selling wines are well known names like Cakebread and Merry Edwards.
The most popular wines are wines that make people feel comfortable. I mean when I drop a 30-page tome down on the table you want to do everything you can to make guests feel at ease. That’s where a brand like Cakebread comes in. It’s known for its quality and consistency. And for the quality you get, it’s a value. A lot of the buying public is still uncomfortable with wine and uncomfortable with sommeliers. They want something they know they can trust, and Cakebread hits all those checkmarks.
What are some of the surprise hits on your wine list?
Given my restaurant and high percentage of seafood dishes we sell I’m always surprised by the amount of cabernet that moves. People love their big red wines and I’m perfectly fine with that. Look I don’t want people to go home saying, ‘I loved it, but it would have been perfect if I’d had ‘x’. If I’ve got ‘x,’ they can have it. If someone’s a cab drinker, the first wine I’ll go to is Darioush. It’s as big a cab as you can get and yet it’s still balanced.
But maybe the biggest surprise this year was the response for this dessert wine—Vinedo de los Vientos Atlantida Tannat Alcyone—a tannat made in a port style from Uruguay, all chocolate and coffee. I get more people asking me where I can get this wine. I say, ‘Here.’
Patrick J. Comiskey covers US wines for Wine & Spirits magazine, focusing on the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Coast and New York’s Finger Lakes.