Lynn Whittum of Denver’s Mizuna on alternatives to cabernet - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Lynn Whittum of Denver’s Mizuna on alternatives to cabernet

You’ve raised your prices and report that wine sales as a percentage of your total restaurant sales are way up: Is the recession over in Denver as far as diners are concerned?
I hope so. I definitely am seeing more business diners coming back in. I’ve been building the wine list up at the higher end and people have been buying it.

Malbec is your number one glass pour.
Malbec is hot right now. It’s a great value, it’s big, rich, full—it has all the characteristics people love, and it’s affordable. People love it.

At the same time, it looks like pinot noir dominates your bottle sales.
For our customers, pinot noir is definitely number one. And it’s American pinot they want; for us, Burgundy has been a sleeper. But recently I redid the list and put all the pinots together, and Burgundy sales are picking up now; I don’t think that many people realize red Burgundy is pinot noir. But also, Oregon is hot right now; people want to try those wines, to see what they are about.

It’s the opposite with chardonnay: I sell lots of white Burgundy as opposed to California chardonnay. There will always be people who want a big, oaky California chardonnay, but for the most part it seems that people are learning that whites wines with less oak are more food-friendly. It’s nothing against the big, rich style; those are just more difficult to deal with at the table.

What about sauvignon blanc?
People love Sancerre; it’s out number one seller by the bottle. They don’t necessarily think of it, but if you suggest it, they say, “Oh, yeah, I love that wine!” It’s so refreshing, a great opening wine for a meal.

How does Zinfandel sell for you?
I get very few requests, unless it’s for Turley or Orin Swift’s The Prisoner—everyone knows those wines. It’s Napa cabernet that’s a staple. People are comfortable with them, and you can get some great wines for sure, at good prices now. This economy really forced a lot of wineries to look at their pricing structure and think about what they wanted: If they wanted to actually sell the wines, they needed to reconsider the prices.

How do you explain the presence of a wine from Ribera del Duero in your top ten best sellers, in the middle of all these French and California wines?
Oh, the Valderiz: If people like California cabernet and want to try something new, I think tempranillo is the way to go. It offers a lot of similar characteristics and at a lower price point; it’s a really fun category to turn people on to when they want to explore something different. But yes, it’s a hand-sell; they aren’t asking for it.

What’s the most exciting trend you’ve observed over the last year?
The renewed interest in Bordeaux. Bordeaux is so hard—the higher end stuff is so insanely out of reach for everyone—even if I find something I can afford, then I can’t actually get it. Fifteen years ago, sommeliers could try these wines and buy them; it’s just impossible now. But I think this is allowing some of the smaller properties to shine, and that’s exciting. People are looking for Bordeaux; the Bordeaux under-$100 category is coming back strong.

is W&S’s editor at large and covers the wines of the Mediterranean and Central and Eastern Europe for the magazine.