Chris Gaither first got into restaurants while working his way through college in Atlanta. A sommelier internship at The French Laundry brought him to California. He later managed the Burgundy-heavy list at Spruce in San Francisco, and he’s now the wine director at Gary Danko, where he’s spent the past two years in charge of the restaurant’s 2,500+ wine selections.
On demand for Napa cabernet…
I beefed up that part of the list in all the wrong ways. I beefed up on [super high-end] stuff like Harlan, Bond, Screaming Eagle… I bought old bottles of Dunn, which are absolutely delicious, and I wish more people would drink those. But it’s the stuff that’s more approachable and more recognizable that sells. Every time we have Caymus [Napa Cabernet] on the list, we sell through a case over the weekend. We don’t have to work to sell it.
You also have a lot of Bordeaux and Burgundy on your list. What’s moving there?
For Bordeaux, it’s going to be the more recognizable classified growths. I try to get things with interesting stories, to create a more dynamic experience for people. We have the second wine of Chateau Beychevelle in St-Julien, and it’s amazing. I’m trying to find more second wines of well known estates; that’s a nice niche for people who like Bordeaux but don’t want to spend a ton of money for a First Growth.
But it surprises me the amount of expensive wine that we sell. We have to have high-end things on the list, but we just move through a lot of expensive wine that I don’t imagine us selling so quickly. Like Léoville Las-Cases. We have to work to keep Léoville Las-Cases in stock because we have this one guy from Singapore who comes in and will just clean us out, ordering different vintages. He loves it.
The most noteworthy aspect of your list might be your particularly deep selection of dessert wines.
Part of it is because dessert wines, financially, offer us an opportunity to create a cool experience for guest. We can afford to have a lot of things open that won’t go bad as quickly as still wines.
And also to make a statement: people forget that they can have something delicious with their dessert, rather than just coffee.
I try my best to get the staff into building it into their service. We offer a really great tableside cheese service, bringing the cart to the table and talking about the cheeses, and with that we’ll recommend wines to go with the cheese selection. I’ll say: I have a wine that will go great with cheese, and you can also save a few sips for your dessert.
I added a selection of rare old Madeiras by the glass. It grows and shrinks with the seasons. Right now we have around 30, and sometimes almost 50, and I’ll be growing it again in the next couple of months
Those are hard to keep in because they just dwindle away. These are allocated Madeiras that are really hard to get. We get a few tables that are just having a fun time with food and wine, a larger group that wants to try something interesting and unique with their cheese—and we just blow through a bottle for a table. That’s why it takes some managing. We had a 1875 Malvasia from D’Oliveras, and we sold that whole bottle to one table, a two-top.
Your favorite wine-drinking (not tasting) memory of the year?
I’ve had a few different bottlings from Agrapart on various occasions. It’s something I continually go back to; myself and my girlfriend are both big fans of Agrapart. They make quite a few bottlings, but one of the best we’ve had is the 2005 Grand Gru L’Avizoise Blanc de Blancs. It’s just beautiful. We’ve had other bottlings from them, like their ‘05 ’06 and ‘07 Venus. And their rosé is just delicious, I’d love to have that as my house wine. But we had the 2005 L’Avizoise hanging out with Ian [Becker] at Absinthe, and he just crushed us with that.