As a loyal fan of Noreetuh, returning for chef Chung Chow’s Hawaiian-inspired menu and Jin Ahn’s destination wine list, you might have to pay a little more for your musubi. The snacks at the top of Noreetuh’s menu, whether yellowtail, or unagi, or truffle and Spam, are bedded over rice and wrapped in nori. And rice costs a lot more this year, says Jin Ahn, who’s been working with chef Chung Chow to stand against inflation. Between supply issues and inflation, Ahn reports increases of between one and ten percent on some menu items. He estimates that wine prices have increased around five percent on his list: “My margins haven’t changed on the wines,” he says, “I just raise the price based on what I’m paying. Some allocated or small-production wines shot up and at some point I have had to let them go. I can’t keep chasing these unicorns. It doesn’t make any sense to me anymore.” Especially given the shift in his guests coming out of the pandemic, with a lot of younger people sitting outside and drinking beer. “We haven’t lost wine customers,” Ahn says. “We’ve opened our doors to a bigger audience.” —Joshua Greene
Your survey response notes that wine is holding its own as a share of your restaurant’s total sales.
My sales have always been really steady, we’ve been attracting a certain type of clientele. Yes, a lot bring their own wine and a lot pick off the list. Over time, I’ve added wines that are more expensive. There are more choices now. I started with 225 in 2015, now I’m at 350. Adding more selections with a better spread across the price points. There are not a lot of guests spending $200-plus; most people are okay with $100, and most look for wines around $75. My sweet spot is still $75 to $100: A majority of the people who don’t know too much about wine will spend $65. Anyone who asks for a recommendation will spend around $75, and people who are knowledgeable will spend between $100 and $125. They’re looking for unique bottles, rather than a normal Sancerre to fill the gap.
Let’s say someone comes to dine and has no idea about wine but still wants to drink good wine. You have a conversation. They might say, I’m looking for dry white wine around $75; most people are comfortable saying $75. People more informed about wine may be more specific: Hey, I’m a big fan of Julian Haart. If I don’t have any, I might suggest Keller, or if you want Middle Mosel wine, I can recommend something else.
For the people who don’t know a lot about wine, I recommend wine based on price point and their description.
If they start throwing out names, I have a sense of what they want to spend. Chances are they are also looking for allocated bottles as well.
This year and last, you estimated that half of your customers order wine with dinner. In years prior to the pandemic, you were estimating 70 to 75 percent. What has changed?
Maybe I overestimated a bit in the prior years.
After the pandemic, we added a large of selections of beers. We wanted to have something for the younger audience, people walking around the neighborhood looking for outdoor seating. Yes, we have five-dollar beers and ten-dollar beers. We became busier with more bodies coming in and, yes, we sell more cocktails and sake, but we haven’t lost wine customers. We’ve opened our doors to a bigger audience. The number of wine drinkers has gone down, relative to the number of guests coming in. But of the wine drinkers coming in, they spend more money.
Going back to 2018, you estimated that white wine made up 50% of your sales. That decreased consistently through last year, when it hit a low of 25 percent, with 60 percent in red wine. This year, white is back up to 47 percent. What’s driving that?
There was a tipping point last year in how people view our restaurant. Prior to that, I had a certain clientele, a base of regular guests. During the pandemic, there were guests who regularly frequented our restaurant, a few individuals who would only drink red wine, and that brought down the sales of white wine. But, after the pandemic, the average age of our guests had gone down tremendously.
People who are in our restaurant-and-wine-drinking community probably understand.
The tipping point was spearheaded by a few people who found our restaurant through word of mouth. They are in tech and finance, most of them single, and they want to drink good wine. They started to frequent our restaurant every Sunday, about a year ago. Sometimes one or two would come in, sometimes they would fill the entire restaurant. Some group of them would be here, without missing a single week, so we had a big party to celebrate their coming every Sunday. These are very inclusive individuals—they invited chefs and sommeliers to join them, and a lot of them stayed loyal. They drink well; yes, they’ll drink Krug and Rousseau, but on any Sunday it could be anything. It could be themed, or ‘bring a blind wine that would stump everyone.’ This community started to build and build; it’s a younger group, more adventurous, looking for something new and cool.
The perception of the restaurant has shifted, so people saying, ‘Hey, I hear you know a lot of German wines.’ At this point in my life in the restaurant business, I know enough about German wines but I’m not an expert. I’m constantly on the lookout for rieslings that are drinking well. Last year was a crazy ride; for some reason I became a German wine expert out of the blue.
People say you have a great riesling list, and when in Rome, you’ve got to drink riesling. If someone asks the staff what to drink, they say, ‘Hey, what about riesling.’ When I did the numbers to answer the poll, I was shocked to see how much riesling I have gone through.
How do you structure your German riesling list?
Page 6 on the list is all off-dry and sweet styles, 25 and older. Then there is a page for 24 and younger. JJ Prüm has a page. Keller has a page. Then there’s a dry riesling page, so, it’s five pages in all.
After my trip to Germany, at the end of July last year, I also created a German reds page, spätburgunder, lemberger, trollinger… I had a cabernet sauvignon and will get it back. They are really exciting; I love these wines. It gets tied in with climate change; I speak about this quite a bit with Burgundy drinkers, that German reds are getting better each year. They are stylistically different, but the wines are amazing. Sadly, supplies are so limited. Within a short period of time, they have been drinking a lot of German spätburgunder. Wasenhaus—there’s next to nothing available and there are those guys who go around and pick up these wines off restaurant lists everywhere.
You seem to be all-in on older vintages of the Hermann Ludes Rieslings. Are you buying the wines at auction or from Vom Boden? How did you get turned onto them?
So, first and foremost, I have this page of rieslings 25 and older. It’s still skimpy, getting smaller and smaller; my job is to source and source and source. I asked Colin at Vom Boden for older Rieslings. He said, ‘I have a few bottles of Ludes 1994.’ I brought in a case each and opened them and for me they were one of the most beautiful expressions of riesling, the Spätlese was drinking almost like a dry riesling, a beautiful example of the soil.
I visited the vineyard last summer and I loved these wines so much that I cleaned out Vom Boden’s distribution cellar, six cases of each. I was opening one to three bottles of this every night. I’ll buy whatever I could of that particular vintage. Lyle Fass was bringing it in. Once Stephen started to represent these guys and they got better known, people started to get to know them. Jonathan [Eichholz] at The Modern was pouring it as well. I tell people the 1994 should be a reference point, this is the most pristine, beautiful example of an aged Mosel riesling.
I ran out of everything, and went to the secondary market to buy more. I still try to keep the prices relatively low, even if I have to pay a little higher in price. Stephen [Bitterolf, at Vom Boden] texted me a couple of days ago. He said, ‘Jin, I have some library releases coming out. You are the first one on the list.’
Is it something new that your guests are asking for riesling, or has that been consistent for some time? Over the last few years, you were selling a lot of Burgundy. Has the interest shifted?
People have always asked about riesling, but this year, a lot more have been asking. When the word starts to spread, it becomes exponential. The word has gotten out that this is a place to drink riesling, and older riesling. Burgundy is still doing okay, but even if you are a Burgundy drinker—Burgundy drinkers would always drink riesling. And if they are a top-tier Burgundy drinker, chances are, they are bringing their own Burgundy and drinking my riesling.
How is it that you and your team got behind the Emrich-Schönleber Riesling Trocken, Mineral 2021?
That was something I really loved from when Sussex used to carry them. Not a cheap riesling by any means, top-tier prices for dry Rieslings. I got bitten by this Mineral bottle in 2019 or 2018, it was shockingly good. I told Elan [Moss of Sussex], ‘Dude, this is really good wine.’ ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I told you.’ It was $25 or $26 at the time, that wine made an impression on me, felt like it had that shocking high acid and impressive fruit, that Mineral is younger vines of Halenberg and Frühlingsplätzchen, both from Nahe, famous grand cru vineyards, along with one premier cru site. This was my staff pick and now my staff loves it, too.
How have your interactions with guests changed this year, with regard to discussions about the wine list?
My dynamic has changed quite a bit. Pre-pandemic and during the pandemic, there was a lot of direct involvement. I would guide guests through the wine list, serve the wine, do all the entertainment. After the pandemic, my obligations have gotten to the point where I can’t do that. And my staff has become much more competent on wine.
My job is to consult with my team; when it comes to wine, they have a good general knowledge. I ask them to pick some wines from the list you want to feel comfortable with and get to know them.
In terms of my interaction with the guests, I speak less in a sommelier role, more small talk and sometimes more detailed conversation, especially with guests who want to know more and want to hear more about the winemaker. A lot more philosophical conversations and my opinion about the wine. We have much more conversation on subjective opinion. Sometimes I will pull up a seat and chat with them about wine and drink with them. Or, if I’m not there, they text me.
It’s a natural evolution, and it happened organically. Restaurants should not be about a single person. Guests should go for the community, for the food. It was something that was hard to let go.
How have guests’ expectations about wine lists and wine service changed over this past year?
Even the loyal crowd, they always find something interesting, I change the list once a week, I used to change it every day. When they come in, they will go down the line, things disappear and other things come on board. I don’t think expectations have changed, but I have more responsibility for keeping the wine exciting, It’s a small audience, I like to think there are a lot of wine enthusiasts out there, but it’s a handful, still, But I don’t think the world should exist of only the extreme wine enthusiasts, you should have all of the above, otherwise, it gets tiresome.
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