Now in his 22nd year running the wine program at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab, Kevin Bratt oversees a wine buyer and two sommeliers at the downtown Chicago mainstay. He has teams at Joe’s in DC and Las Vegas, and is also now managing the wine programs at two locations of Shaw’s Crab House—in Chicago and Schaumburg, Illinois. His most recent project, The Gin Commission, will reopen as soon as he finds a new location for the gin-centric bar. —Joshua Greene
In 2021, you cited a Sancerre (La Perrière Mégalithe) as your biggest new success, at $48. This year, you cited a different Sancerre (Domaine Fouassier) for the same success, at $73.
Most of it has to do with the fact that it’s Sancerre. Whether it’s Mégalithe, Fouassier, regardless of who the producer is, the category is stronger than ever. I wondered if there was an article that I missed promoting how great Sancerre is. Obviously for a seafood restaurant, Sancerre pairs well. I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon. And Chablis is up, too. It’s all mineral-driven white wine.
For the past three years, your answers to our trend questions have been that entrée pricing and wine pricing have basically stayed the same. This year, you noted that entrée pricing bumped up more than wine pricing, but both bumped up.
As much as we had tried to fight the supply chain problems, it’s just been one thing after another regarding pricing. The cost of steak, the availability of stone crab and king crab, prices have gone up. And as much as I had locked in our wine prices, with availability issues for wine and glass, I’ve seen a lot of increases on our end and we’ve had to take the prices up a few dollars here and there. Champagne has gone up. Napa Valley has gone up quite a bit. Napa Valley is always a very strong seller at Joe’s and it has stayed a strong seller. Even though the sweet spot for pricing has remained the same, we have to find other producers to put in that spot. But the biggest names remain strong, even if they have gone up a few dollars.
Wine’s share of your restaurant’s total sales dropped by about 5%. What took its place?
The sales for wine are up from the past two years: As a whole, I am starting to see wine tick back up to where it was in 2019. And the percentage of overall restaurant sales are going up a bit. But spirits have taken a little bit of the share from wine. The spirits category has broadened, and cocktails are cutting into wine sales. That’s what I come up with when I run the reports. It’s not necessarily that people are pairing cocktails with their meal, or drinking another cocktail and not ordering wine with dinner.
You mentioned that the share of lesser-known wines on your list is up around 5%. What is driving that?
It is a tricky question, the lesser-known category for me would be things that a majority of our clientele don’t know—a region they’ve never heard of or a variety. The growth in that segment of the list is more about the staff being enthusiastic about something new.
Finding something of value, quality first, and putting a grape or region on a guest’s radar, that’s one of the most important things a sommelier can do. Portugal is still up and coming. Even though we’ve been talking about Greece for a while, there’s a lot of room for growth. You offered me the opportunity to go to Australia, I don’t think the new form of Australia wine has been completely exposed and the grenache coming out of [the Adelaide Hills and Basket Range] is really cool. There’s vermentino out of Sardinia—I had a chance to visit there. Also Sicily, for a seafood restaurant, it’s always great to find an alternative to Sancerre or Chablis like the carricante, catarratto from Sicily, or even nerello mascalese with seafood. We have a lot of return customers, coming back for new things, they like to ask questions of the wine team and those are the conversations we love to have.
Washington or Oregon or Texas or Michigan or Virginia or New York, those are places we’ve been talking about for ten years. I would say the wines of Missouri are going to be a big thing. What do we love as somms and stewards of wine history? The Augusta wine region is the first AVA in the US. Even though it’s a lot of hybrid grapes people have not heard of, there will be a lot of cool things coming out of Missouri. My friends bought a few wineries, including Augusta Winery—the hybrid thing had not been on my radar, until they started talking about Missouri. Even norton or chambourcin, I had not given them much consideration.
The Cantina Santa Maria La Palma Vermentino is your least expensive wine and is also a wine your staff got behind. Is that typical of the least expensive wine for your staff to push it? Or what is it about that wine that caught their attention?
The staff would not be pushing the least expensive wine. It’s the guests ordering it. On the flipside of that, I had the opportunity to visit that winery. When you come back with the enthusiasm of having visited those regions… That name, Cantina Santa Maria La Palma, rolled off my tongue, and what’s better than having a langoustine on the label to recommend that it goes with shellfish?
A California sangiovese is an unusual thing for the staff to get behind. What drove the staff interest in Jonata?
You want sangiovese to taste like it’s from Tuscany, and that wine actually does. Matt Dees was the winemaker; it was a spinoff of Screaming Eagle. They presented an opportunity to pour it as a glass pour with some age, 2006. It’s pale in color, expresses California terroir but has Italian influence—if I was tasted blind I would think it was Italian. You like to take some risks; maybe they won’t all be hits but it’s fun to try.
And a Tasmanian Chardonnay from Tolpuddle. What’s the story behind that?
I went to Tasmania and it’s one of my favorite places—obviously Australia, but you would never know. The climate is so dramatic: parts so green and lush, other parts dry and arid. The producers are so passionate about pinot noir and chardonnay, and the sparkling wines are some of my favorite outside of Champagne. I recommend Janz Premium Brut Rosé with Joe’s fried chicken.
During a weekly wine session, I blind tasted the team on the Tolpuddle Chardonnay and everyone was floored. It’s mineral focused, full bodied but lean at the same time, with citrus notes, everything I would say would make it sound like you’re drinking cru-level Chablis. It was one of my top five wines of 2022.
Is Sancerre what customers are perpetually requesting? Why is that?
It’s crazy, I don’t know why, the wines are great, and it’s wonderful that that’s the one they are asking for. I won’t question it, as long as we can get it I will be more than happy to serve that to guests at our seafood restaurants. That also adds to the allure of finding other wines from other regions that you can recommend to guests if the amount of Chablis and Sancerre do begin to run a little bit low.
How have guests’ expectations about wine lists and wine service changed over this past year?
My client base, I feel like their cellars are deeper, whether through auctions or direct-to-consumer sales, they have more access to build their cellars than in the past.
A guest will say, ‘Oh this wine is great, I have a couple cases in my cellar.’ Even five or ten years ago, I did not hear that as much. Maybe because in the past two years, restaurants have not buying as much, so that may have opened up the avenue for collectors to get those wines through retail shops or directly from the winery.
It’s getting easier to understand what they want, because of our relationship with returning customers, developing that relationship and understanding their preferences make it easier to make recommendations. We want to make sure they leave happy with the selection they made; we don’t want any unhappy guests at the restaurants. Whether pinot noir is the general preference but they are willing to try other things, or whether cabernet and merlot are their preference but they are willing to try something else… We need to keep track of what the guests have liked in the past. We need to know the language the guests are speaking, to get to know what they are asking for. Even if the adjectives and descriptions don’t jibe with ours, we need to know what they want. The team I have at Joe’s has been there so long, the repeat customers they’ve seen many, many times. That level of comfort has developed over time. That way you can tell if they are interested in try something else or if they want that exact same bottle of 1982 Margaux…if we had enough 1982 Margaux.
Follow Kevin Bratt on Instagram at @invitisveritas.
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