A sports-writing job at the Napa Valley Register brought Ian Becker to California, but he quickly shifted his focus to wine, working at various restaurants until he landed a position with the Absinthe Group in 2005. He now directs the wine program at Absinthe, a brasserie near the symphony and opera house that’s become a San Francisco institution, while also overseeing the Arlequin retail store and the wine selections at Boxing Room, a more casual spot that features chef Justin Simoneaux’s Louisiana cooking.
One thing that’s really changed [over the last year], especially at Absinthe, is that we’re selling a lot more high-end wine: the culty Burgundies and stuff like Clos Rougeard. That was a big surprise for us, because those wines usually take a little more hand-selling. I think a lot of it has been industry coming into Absinthe a lot more. Grower Champagne has gone up in sales as well. It’s been really exciting for our team: Not only do they get to talk to colleagues from other cities and parts of the Bay Area, but they also get to taste the wines that we spend so much time putting on the list and inventorying.
On Daulny Sancerre—#1 at Absinthe
Quite honestly we’ve poured Daulny for four straight years now. It’s very consistent and Charles Neal, the importer, has done a good job of filling our stocks. It’s very dry and crisp; it’s what people expect from Absinthe: a great brasserie wine that goes well with a lot of the starters and raw seafood items we have. At Absinthe our by the glass program is at a pretty fast and furious pace, so we need things that are exactly what they intend to be. They’re going to the Symphony or a concert at Bill Graham [Civic Auditorium] and need to make curtain, so they need to make a decision fast. We can’t re-route that river. And it’s not just having wines somms want to come and drink: you need to be able to pay your bills as well. We sell ten cases of Daulny [Sancerre] every week or so and one bottle of Ganevat.
All that sparkles
The [sparkling] wines that do well tend to be very good deals, and a lot of it has to do with the crowd. They’re going to see a performance. Sparkling wine works really well. At Boxing Room [with its Louisiana-influenced menu], I think sparkling wine should actually be sold at an even higher rate. Champagne and fried chicken, Champagne and fried oysters are really good, not just raw seafood.
Cava in the Top Ten: Avinyo at Absinthe, Bohigas at Boxing Room
Two main reasons: The first is our relationship with our bar program at both Absinthe and Boxing Room. [These Cavas] are very dry and maintain their bubbles very well, and the quality is good, so they work well with our cocktails that require sparkling. We use them at such a clip that the quality-to-price ratio is just excellent. On top of that, I think these are two really underrated producers in the first place. The vineyards are farmed under organics and they’re at least somewhat hand-harvested. I know that Avinyo hand harvests a lot of their grapes. And they’re delicious on their own. We need to have wines like that. At the bars, we can’t afford to have two sparkling wines, one for cocktails and one not for cocktails. Jonny Raglin, our director of bars, once said to me when I was first thinking about bringing on the Avinyo: I don’t know, it’s a bit drier than what we normally use. And I said: can’t you just fix that in the recipe, add a little simple syrup or something? It’s like tennis a little bit.
We’ve always had the philosophy of choosing producers. While of course we believe in terroir first and foremost, when it comes to having a program of depth that is still manageable to consumers, it’s important to have our commitment on display to individuals who are making the right choices. That’s even the case for wines that maybe aren’t made in our individual preferred styles, but wines we know our guests will enjoy drinking. So we buy every wine from Roulot, we buy every wine from Raveneau. We buy every wine even from some producers who aren’t so well known, like Bruno Clair. When we buy de Montille, we buy a case of everything.
It might be considered the easy way out—not making choices, just buying by number on pre-arrival. But I’ve been working with these producers for the last eleven years, ever since I started here. We know these producers. We’ve visited them. And we do no gray market at all. There are plenty of great wines we can’t buy, but it adds clarity in terms of the scope of a list that’s so big. If you look at any appellation, you see verticals. That’s always been part of the plan. That is a challenge we set out to take on. It’s something that is rare in today’s climate. We cellar our own wines. When Etienne de Montille is in town, we go down to the cellar and check it out—how this wine’s tasting, how’s that wine’s tasting? We’re not there to cherry pick with our partners; we’re there to take a stand and stick with it. The greatest thing about wine is that it was here before us and will be here after us as well. If we’re not buying wines that will age, what the hell are we doing? We spend a lot of money on temperature control, and rent.
Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.