Before the pandemic, Jin Ahn at Noreetuh reported in from NYC’s East Village with unusual but sensible wines for chef Chung Chow’s Hawaiian-inspired dishes. In 2019, the most expensive top-seller at Noreetuh was Domaine Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc at $135. Now, two years into COVID chaos, what sells by dollar volume has come to mean something completely different. Ahn’s top-selling list—by dollar volume—includes a Rousseau 2015 Chambertin and a magnum of Talbot 1988—single bottles with prices that overshadow multiple cases of riesling. And five Champagnes among the ten wines; there were none listed in 2019.
I sold one bottle of the Rousseau Chambertin, but at that value, it makes the top 10. I don’t have multiple bottles. When I have an arsenal of wines, rather than three bottles here or four bottles there, they will have a greater weight. If I have one bottle of Château Rayas, and it’s $1,200, it will make it to the Top 10.
I was able to find this Phillip Kuhn Spätburgunder from 2009; even though I sold a lot of those bottles, it didn’t make it on the list. I sold a ton of different Peter Lauer rieslings, but no single bottling made the cut; if you combined the collection of vineyards, Lauer would make it.
In the past year, I started to put a little more expensive wine on the list. People ask for certain bottles of wine. The person who bought the Rousseau [2015 Chambertin] and the Pousse d’Or [1993 Volnay 60 Ouvrées], he comes from Texas and asks, “Jin, what do you have?” These wines are not on the list. But if I have it, I will sell it.
For a small restaurant of this caliber, our clientele can afford to spend a lot of money on wine. They tend to bring their own wine because it is very expensive, but if I have Rousseau Chambertin, they will buy it. Five percent of our clientele behave that way. This wine is expensive, and it would be more expensive somewhere else.
People have shown a willingness to spend more if the bottle is right. I’ve been collecting certain types of wines that would supplement the thirst of these collectors. If the wine doesn’t show as it should, I won’t charge them, so they have a higher confidence in the wines they drink at the restaurant, and they understand the prices will be reasonable.
This year, people have been drinking high-level wines every day. There is so much more disposable income in their hands; for a while, it was about trying to support the restaurant, but now it’s just people wanting to drink wines that are coveted and rare. Like the Rousseau. I will tell them it’s not ready and they will say, I want to drink the Rousseau. Behaviors have certainly changed.
And prices have risen for the hard-to-find, allocated wines. The regular wines are not more expensive. First, there were the tariffs, then inflation, then supply-chain issues. The same exact bottle of wine is now three times more expensive than it was six months ago. That’s from distribution, which rarely changes their pricing. Burgundy has gone crazy. People are cleaning out the grey market and the tertiary market because it’s cheaper than buying at retail. I’ve never seen all these bottles disappearing off the market at this rate. The appetite is insatiable right now for these types of wine.
I looked at some of the pricing over three years for the grands crus from Lalou Bize-Leroy’s other domaine, d’Auvenay. Even their aligoté has been reaching four figures. Three years ago, I wouldn’t buy it because a bottle was $3,000; now the same bottle is $30,000. Sometimes, it makes me sick.
What made the Stein Vom Berg Mosel Cabernet Sauvignon your biggest new success this year? Were people ordering it or were you pairing it with a dish?
For some guests, we’re a seafood-pork-pineapple restaurant; for others, it doesn’t matter what the food is, we’re just a wine restaurant. Anything odd and weird, as long as it tastes good, that’s something I can work with. We do carry a lot of German wines, so sign me up: It tasted like Finger Lakes or Loire Valley cabernet franc. And I did it to support California wildfire relief [the profits go to the California Wildfire Relief Fund and the Latino Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund]. That was the only non by-the-glass wine I bought in bulk. We couldn’t mark it up too high because we’re doing a good deed by bringing it in. I blinded some somms on it, and some guests, and people liked it. Sold the first six bottles, and then he [our salesperson] got me two more cases of it. A lot of times, people drink it by itself, or with a steak, but it was not part of the pairing program.
A lot of guests will stay for three or four hours and drink a bottle per person, they will say, ‘What should we drink now, I feel like something heavier.’ And I’ll say, ‘I have this, why don’t you give it a shot.’
The most frequent question I get is, ‘Jin, what should we drink.’ I talk to the guest and we figure things out. Sometimes there’s a new discovery and you keep your fingers crossed that the wine will show well. Usually, the people who ask that question, I know their palate well. It’s just a question of what they are looking for.
My restaurant will never be able to move expensive cult cabernets. I can sell decently expensive aged cabernet, but I just don’t have enough stock. It’s about having a reliable source of wine. Sourcing has been one of the biggest challenges. Before I want to buy wine and sell it. Now I want to buy wine and hold it for at least five years and hope it will age. I have to look at mid-term and long-term wines. I supplement my list with auction wines but I still need a relationship with distribution to stock wines for later.
What is this Mata Family Vermouth doing as the best-selling after-dinner wine?
It’s a fortified vermouth from Spain, from Patrick Mata’s family. I love his company—Olé Obrigado—I love them and love their wines. It’s good and inexpensive; it’s one of four wines by the glass in the dessert category, so it’s bound to move. It’s cheap enough that people will buy it.
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