Jonathan Waters has a 35-year perspective on what he describes as the small Berkeley house where he oversees the wine list. The only recent change he points out came in 2018: The team reduced the number of seats in the downstairs dining room by 25 percent. The goal, Waters says, was to give more time for service and to separate that more serene restaurant space from the bustling upstairs café. “We felt the prix-fixe restaurant should have more formal service and allow more time at the table,” he comments.
Photo by Aya Brackett
You note that both wine and food menu prices at Chez Panisse edged up slightly last year. And yet all the wines you list as your top-selling bottles are well under $100.
It’s just the general inflation of running a restaurant. We’ve always stayed ahead of the minimum wage—the beginning wage here is $18 for dishwashers or any other starting role. So we’ve already incorporated that cost. We’re lucky—we own the building, we don’t have any investors, we don’t have any outside streams we have to support.
You see here an economic list. Yes, there are people who are willing to spend a lot of money on wine, so the high-end wine will sell regularly. The average price may have risen from ten years ago, but not recently. As my costs rise for wine, I see it like a pool filling with water—I keep having to go down a level if I want to maintain a price point. We used to pour Chave St-Joseph, but that’s changed. The East Bay has generally been a less expensive market than San Francisco; people don’t spend in a flashy way.
I was excited to see Clos Puy Arnaud (the 2012 Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux) as the top-selling wine at Chez Panisse.
That wine was from the article you wrote [in the December 2018 issue of Wine & Spirits]. I decided, let’s try some of those wines. The list still tilts toward the Loire and Burgundy, but I’ve been looking at Bordeaux from lesser-known regions.
The Puy Arnaud, the quality of balance is vibrant but not too heavy-handed. We sell it downstairs, often with the beef on Saturday night; the preparation changes for the beef but we often use that wine.
Then, at number two by the bottle, the 2007 López de Heredia Viña Bosconia looks like a steal at $82.
Partly, with Rioja, that’s just their release schedule. But I do have a lot of wines held here for a little while—we’ve created a library bench, so we’re not on the current vintage. There are things I pour by the glass immediately, but there are things I put away. I have López de Heredia going back to 1945 and I’m holding that still. Those wines, for a long time, were incredibly accessible; now less so. So, I’m happy that I have a deep cellar of them. It’s a luxury that we have space. I have a lot of wines I paid less for than they cost now, since the tide has risen.
It looks like pinot noir is important on your list, with two West Coast bottlings making your top ten: the 2014 Emtu Labyrinth Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley at $68, and then a 2015 from Eyrie in the Willamette Valley at $72.
The Emtu 2014, that’s from John Mason. It’s organically farmed, from a property where he takes almost all his profits and donates them to charity. It’s a small estate that became the Russian River Valley pinot offer we have—generally with a warmer form of fruit. I know the fog curls up the Russian River Valley, but it does not stop the rich strawberry quality.
The domestic pinots really move quickly. None are very expensive; all have a little age on them. I have six to seven domestic pinots and probably twelve red Burgundies; half of them are on the reserve list.
One builds a list out of joy, and then replenishes a list based on what runs out. What do you need? I need pinot, I need Burgundy, I need chardonnay. I may be very intrigued to try some strange txakoli, but I am going to need to replenish that pinot section every week.