What’s the biggest change in business you’ve noted in recent months?
I would say that in the last year we’ve seen a big increase in large groups, even buyouts. We’re actually bought out on the Thursday and Friday before the Oscars. And big parties are back, too. It seems like companies’ budgets for entertaining has come back some. And many of these big parties, even the buyouts, they want something better. We have a very good lineup of wines for banquets, but I had a buyout recently who wanted to supply the party with Meursault from Domaine Roulot. I told him I would love to be able to sell him that wine but I only get six bottles! But consciousness is up across the board – it takes a lot more to impress someone these days.
You’ve got a lot of ‘classic’ cabernets among your top-ten best-selling wines, including Joseph Phelps.
I do blind tastings with my staff once a week. I put the Phelps up there and it was everyone’s favorite wine; everyone was so surprised when it was their number one pick. But that’s how it is with classics. You forget how good a band like R.E.M. is just because you hear them on the radio all the time.
What about more reasonably priced selections?
I put on a Ciro Classico recently, from Calabria, Fattoria San Francesco. It’s made with galliopo and it’s just a big burst of red cherries in the mouth. And it’s $48 a bottle. You could buy four bottles of this wine for what many bottles cost on my list. I get in trouble with my staff sometimes if something is too reasonably priced. They’re like, ‘What are you thinking? You know people are going to buy this.’
But a wine like that doesn’t seem to make it into the top-selling wines on your list.
I get as excited about esoterica as much as the next guy does, but I have to make sure that there is a really good selection of California cabernet since that’s what my guests want. Within that category I can find things that are off the beaten path, but I would say that most of my time is spent finding things that I can guarantee my guests will fall in love with, whether it’s a classic or some new small producer of cabernet from California.
I work hard to have a nice selection of Bordeaux in the $200 to $300 range, which really serves me well. [When it comes in at that price] it takes a little bit of the shock and the fear factor out of things. And in the last six months I’ve conducted a major Bordeaux education for my staff, and with the broader selection it really has paid off.
Outside of cabernet-based wines, what else are your guests requesting?
I have a segment of my guests that only want wines from the Rhône or American syrah. In fact the other night I had a regular customer buy a bottle of Kongsgaard syrah. For their second bottle they wanted something different and I found them a cabernet; they took one sip and said it’s not going to do, and they went back to another bottle of the Kongsgaard.
We sell almost no white wines; in fact I bought a lot of Champagne last year for the holidays and most of it is still in my cellar. The reds sell like crazy here; I try and work against it sometimes but it’s almost like when they come in they’ve been thinking about the steak they’re going to eat that night and the big powerful red’s right alongside: Red wine is part of the fantasy.
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.