Erik Liedholm of Seastar Restaurant & Raw Bar on Seattle’s favorite whites - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Erik Liedholm of Seastar Restaurant & Raw Bar on Seattle’s favorite whites

It looks like sales of Loire wines are strong at your restaurant.

One of our big sellers recently has been Sancerre. More people seem to be spurning local wines in favor of French whites, so we expanded our Loire section a lot over the last year. Also, our sommeliers have been selling Chidaine Montlouis instead of the basic Vouvray, and Savennières instead of sauvignon blanc, so guest are becoming more sophisticated. 

The Dashwood Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand also made your top-ten list. Is that a region that people continue to seek out for sauvignon blanc?
It’s really interesting: When I first got into the business, sauvignon blanc was so polarizing. People either loved it, or they couldn’t stand it—it reminded them of cat pee. Now people have their favorite style. When we had Sancerre by the glass, people would say they missed having a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. When we put a New Zealand sauvignon blanc on, some people would say, “We’d really like a more chalky sauvignon blanc.” Now we try to please them both.

How have market conditions impacted your wine program over the past several years?
We used to have a 30 under $30 and a 20 under $20 section. We definitely noticed people gravitating toward that section a year and a half ago. Obviously, we want people to have a bottle of wine on each and every table, but we were loosing profits. So we tucked those wines in with the rest of the wine list; plus, at the same time, there was an economic up tick and we started selling more expensive wine: France, Germany, and a real increase in premium producers from Washington, like Leonetti, Cayuse, Quilceda Creek.

Last year, we gravitated to big, high-end wines by the glass. This year, there’s been a little bit less of the premium by-the-glass pours in favor of higher-end bottles.

Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Ranches always does very well in our restaurant poll. What to you think contributes to the success of that wine?
I think Sonoma-Cutrer does a good job of getting themselves out there, and they focus on the fact that they just make chardonnay, plus a little pinot noir. That excites buyers, and then guests become familiar with it. Sommeliers put it on the list because it lends familiarity: first-time guests can immediately gravitate toward something they know. It’s a good starting-point wine.

What is the demand like in Seattle for Washington wines?
When people come from out of town, they immediately gravitate toward Washington wines. It’s that “when in Rome” attitude. But there are so many Washington wineries that the marketplace is a bit saturated. A lot of Washington restaurants carry a lot of Washington wines, but a lot of wine buyers feel a little overwhelmed by the 700-plus wineries.

What have been some of the top Washington producers for you?
A favorite is Gramercy. [Greg Harrington] is making really thoughtful wines. He’s one of those rare Washington winemakers who doesn’t over extract or use a lot of oak. He makes super-aromatic wines, uses a lot of stems. They’re distinctly Washington wines, but they have an Old World sensibility. Each of the wines he makes has a ribbon of Gramercy running through it.

Buty is consistently producing really good wines. It’s hard to find really delicious white wines from Washington, but Buty’s sauvignon blanc/semillon blend is very good. DeLille’s white blend is also consistently good.

What regions are you particularly excited about right now?
We’re always trying to hand-sell Champagne, the grower-producers. Those are things that wine folks up here really like to play with. We’re always rallying behind producers who are taking risks in Champagne.

Austria kind of goes away and comes back, and is making another run. They’re making wines that are really food friendly for us.

The most revelatory wine for me this year was a wine from Campania, Casa d’Ambra Biancolella. A bunch of wine people from Seattle went down to San Francisco for the Union des Grand Crus tasting, and we ate at A16. Shelly Lindgren found it for us, and it was a show-stopper. Everyone was asking, “How much does this cost wholesale?” It was something like twenty-one bucks. It’s imported by North Berkeley Wine. That started a trend of people at that table seeking out wines from that lower part of the “boot.”

Tell me about your by-the-glass program.
We try to mirror what we have on the list itself with the by-the-glass program; we try to have something for everyone in terms of style, geographic region and pricing. So somebody who isn’t wine-savvy doesn’t have a heart attack when they see a $17 glass; they come back down to earth when they see a glass for $4.50. We wanted to take the shock away from J. Q. Public, who doesn’t normally drink wine. We also offer both four ounce and eight ounce pours, and have since we opened ten years ago. For some people, if you only do five or six ounce pours, they’ll think: I can’t believe you’re trying to sell a $15 glass of wine! 

We have an Enomatic for our super-premium wines. We’ve had everything from Harlan and first-growth Bordeaux to totally geeky Radikon-type wines on it. Some have been successful, some not so much. Harlan sold pretty well. When we put second or third growths on it, they didn’t really move that well. We sell it by the ounce, and if they want a whole glass, they can do that too.

The system will preserve a wine for thirty days, guaranteed, and we rotate that very quickly, so we never have to deal with anything being on there for much over two weeks. We put that in five years ago. It’s been pretty steady. Through the recession, when people wanted to indulge in something special without buying a whole bottle, that did well. Now that people are buying premium bottles again, that’s waned a little bit.

It looks like you sell a fair amount of Port as well. How do you approach dessert wines and fortified wines?
Port’s always an interesting proposition. It’s definitely a seasonal item. Now that it’s chilly and rainy, we do pretty well with Port, and also with Madeira and Sherry. We bulk up the fortified wines for the winter, and shrink down the list in the summer, when we play with vin jaune and vin de paille, and chill them down a bit in the summer month.

We always have the ten, twenty, thirty and forty-year Tawnies by the glass, and at least one or two Vintage Ports. It’s very hot and cold. One week we’ll sell no Tawny, and sell two bottles Vintage Port. Another week we’ll sell no Vintage, but can’t keep the Tawny from flying out.

Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.