Rebecca Banks of NYC’s Balthazar on Approachable Rhone, Grower Champagne

In the past year, your wine sales have risen as a percentage of the restaurant’s total sales. What drove that?
It was a tough year with the increase in the minimum wage; and food costs have gone up. Beverage has been tasked with making up for that. We’ve had to get much more aggressive in buying—I’ve been buying larger amounts, and sourcing through more direct lines, trying to lower my cost.

But people are also just drinking. It’s been a stressful year… people were celebrating again this year; it’s just that it all started later: The sales happened at the eleventh hour. I think [guests] were making reservations at multiple places and not deciding where to go until the last minute—that’s a trend in general. We’re using Resy and OpenTable—it’s great to have that service, and we always keep some tables for walk-ins, but with something like OpenTable, a reservation becomes less personal. People are, like, “Yeah, I’m going to cancel.” It’s not like they have to call up and talk to anyone.

In past years, we’ve talked about how hard it’s been to get guests to order anything but name-brand Champagne, but this year you did really well with a sparkling Vouvray and some grower Champagnes.
Sparkling Vouvray was really popular when I first started here, then it sort of fell out of favor. I brought Domaine du Viking back because I love it, and it may have done so well simply because it’s the first one listed in our Sparkling box. It drinks like Champagne—and it’s $50. Also, the price points on the Champagnes from smaller growers make them more approachable. A funny story: A woman called me; she had been in when we had Agrapart nonvintage [Champagne] on the list. She had the wine on her phone, and she wanted to know where she could find something just like it—organic, small production, that style—she was very adamant about it. So I do think people are more aware of smaller producers now.

You’ve always done well with Chave’s Mon Coeur, but now you list quite a few Rhône wines among your Top 10.

There’s broadening interest in the Rhône—I just eighty-sixed a Vin d’Aube and right now have a Vaucluse! I have a new category on the list, Côtes du Rhône-Village. There are so many village label Côtes du Rhônes now, and they all do so well. I think it’s the value: They all fall around the $70 price point. We still sell Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but people are going for less-pricey wines. And I think [guests] know that Gigondas and Vacqueyras are regions around Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I’ve been working with Vacqueyras for 15 years now, and it used to be considered this obscure backwoods wine—hard, stinky and rustic—but I think now it’s also more approachable, and yet it has personality. The one we have is $55. People aren’t afraid of it, which I think in the past was an issue.

Tags  2020 Restaurant Poll  31st Annual Restaurant Poll  Balthazar  Rebecca Banks  Tara Q. Thomas  NYC  Rhône Valley  Champagne