Chris Kelly of Austin’s Lenoir on the Weather, Wax Caps and Birth-Year Wines

The sommelier shares insight about what Texans are drinking now—and why.

Colorado native Chris Kelly dove into wine studies while recuperating from a skiing injury and hasn’t turned back. He moved to Austin in 2010 and has run the beverage program at Lenoir for the last seven years. Here, he talks about drinking with the climate and ordering vintage dessert wine.

Last year, you sold more white wine than red; this year, guests look to be trending back toward red. Why do you think that is?
It’s a multitude of factors. One is climate: It’s a colder year here in general. This year, people started ordering red wine earlier, which I attribute to the weather, which is cool. Literally.

Also, I love to play around with how wines appear on the list. Cabernet franc: Usually people see the variety and they see cabernet, but when you abbreviate it—cab franc—it sells faster for some reason. Things like that have aided sales of red wine.

Your top wines include Envinate and Els Jelipins, from Spain.
Whenever a new Envinate wine comes out, the staff gets excited because it’s approachable and accessible yet unique. I don’t think people care that the wine is from the Canary Islands; as soon they taste it they want a glass. It’s not garnacha, it’s not pinot noir; it’s not super saturated but it’s also not fluffy and bubble gum. It hits this niche that guests don’t even know they’re looking for. They want something they haven’t had before, not because it’s from an obscure region but because it tastes good.

We did really well with the sumoll from Els Jelipins last year. It’s an amazing story and an amazing wine, but do we talk about how cool Gloria Garriga is and that they make X bottles and she and her daughter hand-label everything? Does telling that to every person sell the bottle? Probably not. We sell it because it’s a good wine. And because the staff got behind it, which is surprising because it’s a pain to open. You’ve got black wax chipping all over a white table and people are looking at you like ‘I just spent $140 dollars and the waiter is destroying this bottle.’

What caught your eye when running your numbers?
That the dessert wines have sold really well. Rather than nonvintage Port and Tawny, vintage wine has been more successful. The millennial demographic sees their birth years, for example, in the Madeira and then it’s ‘who cares about the price?’ That’s awesome. We blew through the Banyuls. Seeing a Banyuls from the ’60s or ’70s or a Madeira from the ’80s ... people love it. People order vintage dessert wines like crazy and I have a hard time keeping it stock.

 

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