Ksandek Podbielski of Portland’s Coquine on Hand-selling Versus Retail Wines - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Ksandek Podbielski of Portland’s Coquine
on Hand-selling Versus Retail Wines

Coquine—known for locally sourced, seasonal cuisine and an innovative, borderless wine program—expanded from fine dining to include a café and retail space in March of 2020. Ksandek Podbielski’s wine program downsized during the temporary closure and transitioned as he sold through much of his cellar—but he held onto his stock of Champagnes, wines he loves serving with a few extra years under cork. When the restaurant resumed in-person dining in May 2021, Podbielski put less emphasis on cocktails and spirits than in previous years. Coquine’s bar program now exists to complement their focus as a wine-centric restaurant with a selection of eau de vie, Armagnac, and Cognac. “When we reopened,” Podbielski says, “I presented about 120 items on the list. We’re now up to 465 wines on 22 pages in a little leather-bound book.” À la carte dining has become more regular for this restaurant that was previously committed to prix-fixe service. “In the prix-fixe model, we overwhelmingly sell wine as pairings. But it’s a lot of fun to see people pick out something special from the bottle list and enjoy it in a different context. To see the wine play with the entirety of the meal as opposed to presenting a very rigorous pairing of this wine with this dish.” —Elaine Kim Heide

After you sold through a lot of inventory during lockdown, how did your wine program fare as you transitioned back through an incremental reopening?

We were sitting on about 60 cases of wine in the cellar, or maybe more. Some things we had kept because they were going to be even better in the future. There were about 12 cases that I wasn’t willing to part with. This included some wines that definitely needed time in the cellar but also some Champagne that now has three more years under cork. Whether people know this or not, or are looking at disgorgement dates on labels, I think that the wines just drink better. Having an opening list of Champagne that’s now had a little more time to settle has been really cool. These are little details that I feel excited about.

We gutted and sold through maybe 50 percent of our inventory. At that point I needed to start buying things for our retail model. What was left was a little too obscure to try and sell from a shelf.

I had a realization with a bottle of Thibauld Boudignon Clos de la Hutte that I had intended to use for a pairing. I put it out for retail sale and bought one for myself. I pulled it out of the fridge and Katy [Chef Katy Millard] and I drank it with a New Year’s shellfish lunch that we made, and it was too cold when we first started tasting it and I thought, “God, this wine is really boring, and it’s kind of expensive.” As it came up in temp it hit the ideal window and I thought, “Oh, right, this is why I have a job in a restaurant! It’s my job to make sure this kind of wine gets served properly.” In the perfect window, it’s spectacular but it requires special handling. It showed us that we need to be picking retail wines that are better suited for a model where we don’t have a chance to talk to people as much about the wines and tell them about our experience with how something is drinking now.

You shared with us that wine accounts for 97 percent of your total beverage sales. That’s up from 82 percent in 2019. What drove that change?

We did away with the bar program. We no longer have a dedicated bartender or as much energy around the spirits side. I want the spirits we offer to be a complement to the wine experience. Cocktails that are lighter, brighter openers to the beginning of a meal and then more emphasis on after-dinner drinks. I’ve also been making cordials from things from the garden or fruit that Katy is getting from her farmers. One year, she bought all of the Mirabelle plums that were for sale and we didn’t have the manpower to process it into jams or pastries, so I took two flats and made them into a cordial. That’s been a real hit with the current menu and service. We’re now pretty much a wine restaurant, though we do keep a full bar.

You shared that 22% of the list is made of up of “little-known” varieties or places. In the context of your list, what are some wines that are lesser-known to your guests?

People are still surprised to see us serve Hungarian wines such as dry furmint, juhfark, or hárslevelű. We also work with wines from the Dalmatian coast. Anything from central and eastern Europe hadn’t been accessible during the period of Soviet occupation. This is a story we like to share with people; that some of these families have been making wine for longer than the United States has existed as a country. For a few generations that was put on pause and now they’re able to resume.

In Oregon, pinot noir is king, but I’ve been waving the flag for chardonnay here for 12 years now. There are all kinds of other things happening; gamay is really exciting and also albariño being planted in the Gorge. Oregon is still evolving. The chenin that Mimi Casteel was producing at Hope Well was really compelling. I’ve fallen in love with aligoté and there’s some being produced in Oregon that’s delicious. I’m able to present Oregon aligoté with other superb examples.

Champagne is the one outlier to that rule. A lot of the newer [Oregon] producers are making good wines but for the same wholesale price you can buy small-grower Champagne from unique sites. In terms of what can sell, when people look at an Oregon example next to Champagne at the same price, the Champagne is what sells. Working with Oregon sparkling at that price point requires a commitment to hand-selling, by offering it as a by the glass option, or pairing it.

Analemma are making some spectacular sparkling wine. Single-vintage, single-vineyard, single-variety, non-dosé pinot noir that really transmits a sense of place. Soter has consistently made really lovely brut rosé.

Landmass Pinot Gris was your biggest success. What made this wine such a hit?

I think Landmass is a winery to watch. Two young women with great experience and a great sense of style. Their wines are clean, polished, and honestly made. We used their pinot gris as a by-the-glass option and as a pairing. It tastes like an aloe vera–flavored otter pop. It’s crystalline and pure, and the balance of acidity and texture is so satisfying. It’s pretty irresistible.

You mentioned that skin-contact wines are growing in popularity among your guests. What’s driving that?

A lot of skin-contact wines that we’re working with are on the less radical end of the spectrum. Kelley Fox Maresh Vineyard Pinot Gris was one of the wines that I noted. She makes a number of skin-contact pinot gris that drink from really pretty rosé to something a little more assertive. This is proving to be an incredibly successful way to approach pinot gris in Oregon. Making wines that extract color and aromatics and capture the dried leafiness that pinot gris delivers in terms of an earthy profile, but wines that are still fresh and lively. I find that this works really well with a lot of the food that we serve. These are wines that bring depth but are still agile and fresh.

There’s definitely been a change in the state of skin-contact wines in terms of what’s available. In the past they were often really expensive and challenging. Things like [Monasterio Suore Cistercensi] Coenobium, which is an incredible wine, and super-powerful, but it’s not for everybody. But more and more producers are finding that they can produce skin-contact white wines that are a little more accessible that still possess freshness and are not necessarily all about tannin extraction and umami, but are still quenching. That’s been a cool evolution of the category. As a category, skin-contact now ranges in the same way that red or white can. There are delicate, very pretty wines, and really wild, assertive wines, and everything in between.

How do these wines interact with your menu?

Last week we were serving goose confit cassoulet. This week our roasted chicken has Persian spices and smoked almonds. Orange wine sounds great with that!

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