Noelle Guagliardo of the Culinary Institute of America on unoaked whites and syrah - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Noelle Guagliardo of the Culinary Institute of America on unoaked whites and syrah

You manage the list at three restaurants: Escoffier, Caterina de Medici and American Bounty. And of all three, it looks like wine sales at Escoffier have risen significantly.

We changed the wine list, from French wines peppered with a few California choices to an Old World list, and the ability to choose from outside of France seems to have really made people feel like they can be more adventurous. At one point, selections from Spain and Italy were outpacing France.

That would explain the Rioja in the midst of your Top Ten.
Yes, it seems strange, a Rioja at a classic French restaurant, but Rioja is a buzzword now. It’s like how Prosecco became the thing instead of Champagne a few years back.

And likewise, the pinot grigio.
Again, it’s comfort level. There’s a chardonnay on the by the glass list, but it’s a Mâcon: how many people know that’s chardonnay? There’s an Entre-Deux-Mers, but do they know that’s sauvignon blanc? Pinot grigio has long competed for the top spot by the glass with chardonnay, and here it’s surpassed it, even though the chardonnay is $2 cheaper. It’s almost the new word for chardonnay.

What I was happy to see when I ran the numbers is that Soave is no longer a go-to wine at all; instead people are ordering falanghina, Greco di Tufo, Vernaccia, Orvieto; it gets a lot more creative farther down the list.

When it comes to French wines, what region has the most cachet among your guests?
Burgundy. People know now that Burgundy is pinot noir; it’s selling even though it’s not listed under “pinot noir.”

Caterina de Medici specializes in Italian cuisine; what’s the hot wine there?
Spain has Rioja; Italy has Valpolicella. Part of it is recognition; part of it is that when people ask for “something like pinot noir,” that’s what the students tend to point them to. It fills in the need for a lighter red wine. Chianti Classico I always expect to be number one, but Valpolicella sells itself, too.

How do sparkling sales fare overall at the three CIA restaurants?
They’ve increased at Escoffier, mostly because now people have choices outside of France; that makes it easier for them as it’s easier on the pocket. At Caterina, sales have held steady: Prosecco came out of nowhere a few years ago, and everyone wanted it, but we haven’t seen sales increase since then; it holds steady.

There’s a syrah on your Top Ten at American Bounty (Bonny Doon’s Central Coast Syrah), but no zinfandel.
We’ve seen an up tick in syrah; people have come to think of it as one of the more powerful selections, but not overwhelming. They’ve just about stopped ordering merlot; instead, cabernet and syrah are almost competitive here.

Yet there’s a Waterbrook Merlot at number eight in your top-ten best selling wines. Do people make an exception for Washington merlot?
I think people now recognize that Washington State makes wines, but that’s about it. It’s on there because it’s what we suggest with our dry-aged NY steak—our best-selling dish.

The whites on your Top Ten are all on the lighter side—unoaked chardonnay, New Zealand sauvignon blanc and Dr. Frank’s Finger Lakes Riesling.
People are starting to get away from the mass-produced, heavily oaked styles of white now. They order the Iron Horse unoaked by the glass, they get a nice, clean glass of wine but with more weight than pinot grigio or sauvignon; it’s a good option for them.

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