After 30 years of tracking industry trends in top restaurants across the US, Wine & Spirits has seen wine sales rise and fall with the economy. In those three decades, the two moments when our respondents noted a downward trend in wine sales prefaced an economic downturn: in 2001, prior to the burst of the first tech bubble; and in 2007, predicting the Great Recession of 2008.
This year, our Poll results once again pointed to a downtrend, although this time many of the 200-plus sommeliers who responded tied that trend to changing demographics in their dining rooms. In our follow-up interviews, wine directors described the challenges of serving two distinct audiences—the older Boomer generation and the Millennials—with vastly different agendas and budgets for wine. They also noted a divide within the Millennials: The affluent young, who frequent tasting-menu restaurants to Instagram coveted dishes and bottles, and their thin-walleted contemporaries, hunting for delicious but approachably priced options.
Many sommeliers report that the hunt for affordable wines is increasingly taking them back to the classics. Joe DeLissio, wine director of the River Café in Brooklyn, NY, remarked that “the top wines have gotten ridiculously expensive…It’s made some of my favorite wines the best values: Non-vintage Champagne and Chablis.” A number of respondents called out Beaujolais, too. “If guests are looking for a red, our sommeliers will always go straight to Beaujolais,” said Cullen Leonard, wine director of Atlanta’s Staplehouse, “not only for quality, but also for the price.” For wine director Rory Pugh of New York’s Jean-Georges, Bordeaux is his go-to. “For $50, Bordeaux will take you to the moon and back. And for $100, you can get something with close to a decade’s worth of age on it.”
Most pointedly in the SF Bay Area, though echoed in other parts of the country, sommeliers noted a more open and expansive attitude toward drinking in general, with guests increasingly choosing spirits, cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks. “We have a more robust non-alcohol program than before,” Jim Rollston of Manresa, in the Silicon Valley town of Los Gatos, told us, “a selection of mocktails, juices, herbal infusions and tinctures.” While wine sales may take a hit, Rollston, like many others we talked to, doesn’t see this change as a negative. “Guests are not looking for just one experience,” he says. “They’re no longer coming into the restaurant and saying “I only drink cab.” It’s been a sea change.”
That’s not to say that cabernet isn’t still king: For the 31 years of the Poll, in respondents’ lists of top bottles sold during the last quarter of the year, cabernet sauvignon has represented around 15 percent of those wines. This year, Jordan’s take on California cabernet—more savory, red and earthy rather than jammy, purple and inky—has propelled the brand to the top, joined by R. López de Heredia, a staunchly traditionalist Rioja firm.
“We’d like to think this year’s rankings for Jordan and López de Heredia might reflect more diners ordering wine with their meal in mind,” says Joshua Greene, the editor of Wine & Spirits. “Some Americans are looking past the bigger, bolder styles toward wines with food-friendly restraint.”
Here are the Top Ten Most Popular Restaurant Wine-List Brands of 2019:
- Jordan Vineyard & Winery
- R. López de Heredia
- Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
- Faust Wines
- 6. Frog’s Leap Winery
- 7. Caymus Vineyards
- 8. Flowers
- 9. Duckhorn Vineyards
- 10. Nickel & Nickel
The complete results of our exclusive report will appear in the April 2020 issue of Wine & Spirits, available nationwide on March 17, 2020. To celebrate the year’s most sought-after restaurant wines as well as our favorites places to dine in LA, we will gather over 500 members of the W&S wine community on Sunday, May 17, 2020 for our 2nd annual WSLA Eat + Drink.
Copies of Wine & Spirits’ April 2020 issue are available by mail for $9, including postage and handling. Members of the press interested in receiving the publication or scheduling an interview with editor Joshua Greene may contact Marketing Manager Louise Nightingale at 213-629-0200, ext. 101.
About Wine & Spirits Magazine Founded in 1982, Wine & Spirits is published seven times a year and read by over 200,000 members of America’s wine community. Consumers and wine professionals read the magazine for information on established and up- and-coming regions and producers, the art and science of viticulture, industry happenings and food and wine pairing. Wine & Spirits, the only wine publication to win the James Beard award five times for excellence in wine writing, evaluates more than 11,500 bottlings every year.
This story appears in the print issue of February 2020.
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