During the pandemic, Jim Rollston worked side-by-side with fellow Manresa sommelier Jon Walker, filling boxes of food for takeout. The price of a meal had fallen from $295 in 2019 to $60 in 2020, when the restaurant was closed for dining in. Then, when they reopened again in May 2021, the menu price was back, now at $325. Aside from a few short closures due to staff coming down with COVID, they’ve been able to stay open. “We were shut down for three or four days and were lucky it wasn’t longer,” Rollston reports. “Nobody else got sick.” Meanwhile, Rollston has been busy buying new wine in 2021, and getting back to the allocated wine—“though allocations were taken away because we couldn’t buy during the pandemic,” he says. “We’re operating at about sixty percent capacity, 30-35 people vs. 50 or 55. We’ve filled every seat the whole time.”
In 2019, you had a mix of wines, starting out with Roederer L’Ermitage, and including a number of high-priced California Cabernets and red Burgundies, many in the $400 range. In 2020, you listed mostly wines with retail pricing around $45 to $55. In 2021, your list follows a number of other lists, with Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and other rarities listed at the top. You have a number of Burgundy rarities on the top-selling list as well as some California pinot noirs in the $200 range, and some Champagnes by the glass. But most of what you list is twice or ten times more expensive than what you listed two years ago…
The year is so weird, and we are so weird. The DRCs and Bizot, most of those are one-bottle purchases. Our restaurant does such a volume in pairing, and I didn’t include those wines. The average bottle price is $185, the median is $100 more—because those bottles are so expensive, and there are so few bottles filling out the rest. In the fourth quarter, we didn’t sell ten bottles of anything off the wine list. Not enough other wines got multiple hits.
If the restaurant has it, the people who can buy those wines are going out and drinking it. They are priced that way because we had wholesale allocations. I am aware of the market price, but I want to give someone a reason to come into the dining room. They are unicorn wines for a big crowd of Burgundy drinkers. You can’t go anywhere and buy DRC at retail. They sell directly to collectors, very little goes to restaurants. I could list it at the market price, and it would sit. Because we are not in San Francisco or New York, we want to give people a reason to come and drink a wine like that, and they do, or they did this year.
You seem to be having fun with the dessert wine list. The wines you list are diverse, from a Matusalem VORS from González Byass to a 1955 Rivesaltes and a 1989 Huet Vouvray Moelleux 1er Trie Le Haut Lieu.
Those are wines we’re matching with the food. Ordinarily, that list will have a lot of Madeira, but because of staffing issues, we don’t have a cheese cart. So, it’s solely driven by sweet wines. There was enough volume in those wines to outweigh the ’76 TBA and ’71 TBA on the list. And because we have a menu-pairing option, there’s enough volume to outweigh the single-bottle or half-bottle sale. The dessert wines are part of the pairing program, part of the signature wine experience in the restaurant. Seventy to eighty percent of our guests who drink wine are getting the tasting menu. The best way to sell dessert wine is through a verbal selection or a packaged program experience, that’s how you get people to enjoy those wines.
What is the craziest thing that has happened in your wine program or at your restaurant this past year?
It was all so crazy. The crazy thing was just how many people were interested in so few wines. The Bizot wines I could have sold to four or five customers who saw them on the list before they were coming in. Collectors’ interest focuses on a very narrow band of wines. They are excited about getting out— “I’m going to drink this one wine Manresa has”—and then I only had one bottle, and it’s sold. In a certain circle of people, it’s the wine everyone puts on Instagram. Some of those guys are clients of ours. One is always “Coche Coche Coche, Roulot Roulot.” I said, “Have you ever had Lafon?” And he says, “No no no.” Then, he came back in, and he said, “I had Lafon Perrières and it’s really good.” It’s bizarre. The importers, they say, “Oh, you want that?” I’m not a volume person [buying enough volume of an importer’s portfolio], so DRC or Liger-Belair, there’s no chance. Those wines are good, but there’s a lot of good wine.
The social media–driven phenomenon makes no sense. We’re at ground zero for social media. It really skews the collector world. It’s why you see so many wines at premiums over their release and premiums over their neighbors. It’s all driven by social media. I paid $600 for Corton-Charlemagne from Coche six years ago, and now I pay $3500 for the 2014. It’s one of those wines; I’m done buying it.
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