As wine director at John Howie’s Seattle restaurant group, which includes John Howie Steak and two seafood-focused Seastar restaurants, Erik Liedholm keeps an eye on Seattle’s wine scene from several different vantage points. Luke Sykora asked about what’s selling in Seattle and how a merlot ended up as his most popular wine in the fourth quarter of 2013.
Despite the constant chatter about merlot’s demise, a proprietary merlot that Mark Ryan bottles for you ended up being your top-selling wine. Why did that did so well?
We’re here to bring back merlot—Sideways be damned! We feel strongly about merlot, that it performs really well in Washington. We started with the 2010 vintage, a chillier year, but in certain pockets throughout state, even though the yields were really low, there was some beautiful merlot. We got some declassified fruit from a well-known Washington winery. We found this plummy, gorgeous merlot but with enough acidity to work in a seafood-focused restaurant. [Mark Ryan owner/winemaker] Mark McNeilly was great to work with. He makes some bombastic wines, but we wanted an ecumenical merlot—lower in alcohol, with more neutral oak—and he was flexible in terms of helping us get where we wanted to go. The 2012 was our coup de grace, it’s been the biggest seller at all our restaurants. It sells itself—it’s not something our somms really go out and sell (they’d really rather sell some bizarre orange wine from Radikon or an obscure Austrian merlot). But it’s priced smartly and it turned out to be kind of a hit.
At our steakhouse it’s California cab, Washington cab like Quilceda Creek—we can’t get enough of it. Old vintages of Dunn sell well at the steakhouse and the Enomatic has been extremely helpful for selling those older vintages. We’re not an atypical steakhouse when it comes to wine sales—we sell red. I think last year we sold two bottles of riesling…. The Seattle Seahawks really like our steakhouse, and they’ll drink Champagne—Cristal, Krug Grand Cuvée. But otherwise it’s Red City.
Two sauvignon blancs did well for you, the Dashwood from New Zealand and the Tabordet Sancerre.
Sauvignon blanc is a definite comfort wine. The Dashwood sells particularly because of its price point. That’s again something that’s ordered, not something we aggressively try to sell. The Tabordet is priced right, and they managed to make nice high-acid sauvignon blanc in a difficult vintage, 2011.
It’s part of the whole psychological profile that a somm does. They size up the guest after a short conversation with them. Is this a guest who’s going to feel more comfortable with a lean, high acid, minerally sauvignon blanc? Or maybe you’ve had a conversation about Joly and some other obscure producers of the Loire. Then I might recommend a Vattan, which is off the rails in terms of Sancerre.
I was surprised to see a fair amount of California chardonnay do well for you, though some Columbia Valley chardonnays also sold well. Are you selling as much chardonnay now as ever?
I have noticed an increase in chardonnay sales, especially bombastic styles like Kistler. We got a good deal on Les Noisetiers and have been selling it by the glass, which opened doors for some people who hadn’t tried it before. That’s one example of something that’s helped increase the visibility of chardonnay.
Since you use an Enomatic system for your by-the-glass selections, is there anything interesting that you’ve been able to put on this year?
Right now we’re featuring a grenache flight from around the world. The Cayuse God Only Knows. [Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe’s] Telegramme from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. An Aussie grenache, and then Qupé’s grenache from California, four wines, two ounces of each.
On the white side we played with chenin a bit: an entry-level Huet, Chappellet from California, a producer from Washington and then a Steen from South Africa. So they can explore the different expressions of chenin. And that’s been pretty successful. Once they try it they fall in love with it because of that magical acid and pithy fruit quality. Once they try the flight they’re apt to order the glass of their favorite one and maybe even order a bottle.
Those flights have also increased our bottle sales out the door—you can order any bottle for 25 percent off list price, and take it to go.
On your top selling after dinner wines, it seems like it was Tawny, Tawny, Tawny. Is that something people just order almost automatically?
If we were a restaurant in England we’d have a ton of Vintage Port sales. I’m not a psychologist, but it seems there’s a bit of a dogma when it comes to Port: people just order a Tawny because they tend to be affordable and it’s an easy order, and oftentimes guests don’t seem excited to talk to a somm about dessert wines. Occasionally we’ll have nerd in who wants a Monbazillac, but Port is kind of a default wine for dessert.
Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.