You report that sales dropped a bit. Is it the economy?
You know, it’s not back to 2007 levels, but it definitely picked up in 2009, 2010 was even better, and 2011 better still. We actually raised prices this year. Not on the wine—you can’t really raise prices on wine, unless you raise the markup, which we don’t.
But we did something different: These sites like Groupon everyone jumped on—oh, it’s worth five billion we have to be a part of it—and all these places were approaching us for discounts, and we responded. But these things are not buying new customers, or customer loyalty; they are just putting a bum on a seat. They just move on to the next coupon. It’s not part of our business plan anymore.
I’m surprised to see two malbecs on your top-ten list of best-selling wines.
The perception is that malbec is great value—especially the Paul Hobbs. People see that and they think, oh, a great name and malbec—we can kill two birds with one stone. Malbec is the new shiraz.
And what about shiraz—you do well with St. Hallett Faith by the glass.
Syrah is a dead category. We sell it by the glass and people 70 years old order it because they don’t know it’s fallen off the cliff. It’s actually really nice. You can tell that a lot of big companies stopped buying shiraz because when I went to get it, they had 2005 in stock. It was terrific; I was able to buy a bunch of stuff with some bottle age on it. They recently sent me some 2009, but I saw that they still have 2006, so I may go back and get that.
How does the Tenuta di Blasig Refosco make it into your top five by the glass pours?
It fills in the aromatic, spicy category. And it’s not so rare; I see refosco all over the place.
That’s a very NY view, I think…
Well, there is also an expectation here: If Hooter’s had refosco on the list, that would be one thing, but at a restaurant that’s supposed to be interesting, you expect some interesting choices. And because you get to have a taste, you don’t have to buy an entire bottle, it makes it more approachable.
All your top-selling pinot noirs come from Oregon’s Willamette.
Definitely pinot noir is out biggest selling category. We do have California pinot noir, but it tends to be more expensive. These [Oregon pinots] we don’t sell; guests just buy them. Particularly the Cristom. It’s about $85; that’s pretty much the sweet spot for red wines here. Not white; people won’t pay as much for a white.
Why not white?
“White wine is cheaper because it has no color.” I’m not kidding; I had someone tell me that once. People say all sorts of crazy things. I had another guy who sent back a bottle of Burgundy because he discovered after he ordered it that it was chardonnay. He said, “If I had any idea it was chardonnay, I never would have ordered it. I hate chardonnay.”
The Forstreiter Schiefer Grüner Veltliner makes your top ten.
Grüner used to be super huge but then I think, once it was everywhere, a lot of sommeliers dropped it. For all the new kids, it’s so passé. The high-end stuff is selling less now. It’s the new sauvignon blanc in many ways: you have the chardonnay drinkers, and then the sauvignon blanc drinkers, looking for something lighter, more food-friendly…
What’s the story behind the La Togata Brunello that was your biggest new success and took second place among your best-selling wines?
It’s a bit of an aberration in that I was offered a big chunk of it at a stupid low price, and I took it, thinking it’d take a year to go through. But I put it on in mid-November, and had to reorder the first week of January. Brunello is thought of as in the same category as American cabernet sauvignon. If someone wants to spend $100 on a California cabernet and you say, well I have a Brunello for the same price, they say, “Oh yeah, I love Brunello,” and they take it right away.
How do you do with Port?
Pretty well. We have three by the glass, Tawny and LBV—I don’t believe in selling vintage by the glass. The dessert wines are presented with the dessert list, so that gives them a nice push. Most people order the Tawny; they have no idea what LBV is, and spelling it out doesn’t matter.
Did you buy anything this year you’d thought would be a hit that wasn’t?
I bought a bunch of Southern Italian wines, cheap, that I had tons of success with in the past, and they just sat there. I figured it was such a good deal: There are 380 DOCs in Italy, many that haven’t been [influenced by US critics], so they don’t have gobs of oak; they’re very accessible, inexpensive, good quality—but people weren’t interested.
And any hits that surprised you?
I continue to be amazed when someone plops down $120 for a New Zealand pinot noir. I’m a huge fan—I have Ata Rangi, Mt. Difficulty, Felton Road. But I’m always surprised. All the New World pinot are on the same page, six or seven from California, Oregon and New Zealand, and people go for the New Zealand. I do think a lot of Americans are going to New Zealand now: they’ll say, “Last year, we went skiing and went to Felton Road.”
Also, last year I sold more rosé than I’ve sold in my entire life. It was crazy; I ran out and every time I went to reorder, they’d tell me they were waiting for a shipment to come in. In the end, I was taking 5-case drops of rosé. Twenty years ago, only gay men and Hello Kitty girls drank rosé—it matched their nail polish. This year, everything sold—I had rosé from Italy, Spain, France, Australia, South Africa—everything from Provençal wines, all aromatic with just touches of fruit, to saignée Chianti rosé, which is almost red. We had the R. López de Heredia 1998, which is like drinking mushrooms and desiccated strawberries—it is so good, but you know—and it isn’t cheap. And we sold tons of it. I remember when I was at The Plaza in 2000, I ran something I called The Parade of Rosés: ten rosés by the glass at high tea. It was the perfect audience, and I had to fight to sell a glass. It was a dismal failure. And now, I have six or seven major distributors sending me pre-sell offers on rosé. That’s never happened before.