Erik Liedholm of Seattle’s John Howie Group on custom blends, keg wines and chardonnay blues - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Erik Liedholm of Seattle’s John Howie Group on custom blends, keg wines and chardonnay blues

For over a decade, Erik Liedholm has been the wine director for the John Howie Restaurant Group in Seattle, whose restaurants include destinations like Seastar Restaurant & Raw Bar and John Howie Steak. He’s been named Sommelier of the Year by the Washington Wine Commission (2004) and Seattle Magazine (2012). In 2012, he founded Wildwood Spirits, and his Kur Gin already earned a nod from W&S as one of our Top Ten Spirits of 2014. This year he helped chef Howie launch Beardslee Public House in a space above the distillery, a more casual spot that allows him the opportunity to experiment with wine in keg.

Custom kegs

When we opened the distillery we also opened a restaurant above it. All we do is keg wines—everything is a custom keg, using a new technology out of the Netherlands from a company called Keykeg. I first experienced wine served out of them at a number of restaurants in London.

I was hesitant about keg wines for various reasons—sanitation, for example. I’ve felt that even when you use argon, it shows itself in the wine. This company has this bag in a keg that pushes the wine through pressure, not by gas. This is single use, and it’s recyclable. We can sell the idea to winemakers because they don’t have to worry about keg cleaning, and they know that the wine is going to be fine because it’s just like it’s still in the tank.

Long Shadows has a really great [Columbia Valley] riesling called Poet’s Leap. We told them we wanted a simple riesling, with a little RS [residual sugar]. We called it Schloss Howie. Then Waters, Mark McNeilly and Alexandria Nicole all ended up doing wines in keg for us. We can buy by the liter and put it in the keg, and when we’re done with it we put it in the recycling bin.

On Tessier’s Cour-Cheverney ending up on his top-ten list

I think some of it has to do with the current somm team I have. A lot of what sells well ebbs and flows with who is on the wine staff. We have guys and gals that have specific favorites. In a busy restaurant somms need a go-to wine, and this just happened to be one of them. It’s got some great acidity, great balance, and it’s not terribly expensive. So it’s that triple threat wine. And when we get certain guests onto it—repeat guests. They come back to it again and again.

On a great year for sales

It was just across the board—everybody was feeling a little up. The current economy helps. Last year when we spoke, I think we were talking about those leading economic indicators—the gristmill on my morning jog was rocking!—it was all part of that cycle. People have a little more disposable income and are able to explore a little more with wine lists. In general, everything across the board went up. No new categories really rose to the top. It’s fairly similar to last year, it’s just an increase in sales volume. We’re really riding a nice wave of people interested in wine. In another ten years, I think everyone will be a sommelier! Partly with the movie Somm, wine became really popular, and wine just morphed into a different beast. That could be a reason as well.

On Oregon pinot noir

Washington doesn’t really have a pinot noir of note, and people who visit Seattle pretty much consider Oregon just another part of Washington; they think of those wines as local. At Seastar especially, even more than at the steakhouse, pinot noir lends itself really well to the cuisine. Aside from one little hiccup recently in Oregon, it’s been very consistent from vintage to vintage, and at a good price point. The Stoller [the 2013 JV was his top-selling Oregon pinot noir at $55] is very well priced, so it sells. People also really identify with Domaine Drouhin, considering that it’s a French project in Oregon. Partly, I think it’s just having such a string of great vintages.

On the decline of chardonnay

Chardonnay is suffering from what merlot suffered in the ’90s and early 2000s. It became so popular and then it became uncool. There’s a joke among younger wait staff and sommeliers…it’s know as “cougar juice.” There’s still a demographic that these big, buttery chardonnays are appropriate to. But chardonnay for the most part has seen a bit of a dip. But it will have its resurgence. Merlot is already on its way back.

A lot of [high-end chardonnay sales] are predicated on scores. If someone wants to spend a couple hundred dollars on chardonnay, they’re looking at the Kongsgaards and the Kistlers—those are wines that people automatically order. For people who are just looking for amazing, slight different chardonnay and ask the sommelier to be a guide, we might say: Instead of your Sonoma-Cutrer tonight [the most popular chardonnay at Seastar], you might want to have a St-Aubin from [Sylvain] Langoureau, from a premier cru that’s right next to Le Montrachet. It’s like the cheapest neighbor on the most expensive block, if you will.

Organizations like In Pursuit of Balance are making that concerted effort to try to get people to see the light that acidity is good, and that oak doesn’t need to be the predominant flavor. That’s new to some people, and that may play a role in the change of people’s tastes.

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