A Cincinnati native, Ian Becker moved to California in 2001. He worked as a sports writer for the Napa Valley Register before transitioning into the wine trade. Having joined the Arlequin Wine Merchant team in 2005, Becker now directs the wine programs at Absinthe and Arlequin Wine Merchant. He’s also a co-founder of San Francisco Natural Wine Week.
How does being right near the ballet and opera and symphony affect your wine program?
We’re so busy with performance crowds that by-the-glass wines dominate what we do. So we’ve learned to look for wines that have broad appeal and that we can stand behind. We’ll have tables ordering seven glasses of the same wine rather than buying a bottle and we’re fine with that. Many pre-show people don’t want to have a long conversation with their servers.
We also do a lot of half bottles. We have people who want to have a great wine experience in a shorter amount of time. We sell a lot of premier cru Burgundy in half bottles; whatever we can get our hands on. We often see people in the wine industry on their way to the ballet and symphony.
Sometimes at Absinthe, in the first turn, there’s not much to do—it’s just getting wine into a glass. And then after the show, that’s usually when the somm gets killed—all of a sudden everybody is ordering bottles of wine.
You note that wine sales were up significantly this year, yet most of your top-selling wines clocked in at under $50/bottle. Did the increase have to do with more bottles on tables, or the occasional “trophy bottle?”
I think it was actually both. We did see people spending more money. And across the board, it’s never been busier. We’re not seeing any lag in any one division of our company. Everything’s improved—the café, the wine store. People are buying more expensive wines and more quantity. It’s not like there’s a particular trend—we’re just selling more of everything.
Can you think of a wine that particularly excited you in the past few months?
One wine that I’ve really liked for the past year is a Prosecco from Casa Costa Piane. It’s a frizzante naturalmente, it’s bottle with lees at 11 percent alcohol and I found it to be incredibly quaffable. Minerality and salinity are the biggest descriptors. It’s probably the wine I drank the most of in the past year. It’s definitely the old-school pet-nat style of Prosecco.
What do you think are the most undervalued wines right now?
Prosecco would be one, because people have a different idea in mind when you talk about it—there’s so much bulk production that goes on there.
Obviously the Loire is one that will remain that way, and Beaujolais as well. Ribera Sacra is a place that continues to make aromatic, light-bodied reds that people are just not familiar with. They don’t know what mencía is. But the wines are a great value. If anything, they remind me of Loire reds, cabernet franc, but people just have no idea what to expect.
Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.