Aldo Sohm of NYC’s Le Bernardin on New World wines for European palates

This seems to be the year for Sancerre and Chablis: They’re right at the top of your top-ten best-selling wines.

Sancerre does very well with us, especially for lunch. I sell Gerard Boulay and Vacheron particularly well. People ask for Sancerre. It’s a brand—a crazy brand—and you can get tired of selling the same thing over and over again: That took me to Chablis. There’s lots of great Chablis out there that’s not too expensive, and it’s a good alternative to Sancerre.

Since the fall, we’ve been selling a significant amount of Chablis. In that price range [$70], you can do pretty much whatever you want, as compared to a Burgundy. From $200 up you have to be careful. I hate to recommend wines above $200 if I don’t know someone. People become sensitive. You can get people started very easily with Chablis, it works with our food incredibly well, and you’re true to yourself.

Your list of best-selling wines is almost all white and red Burgundy, with Kistler the only California chardonnay…
That’s a brand we can’t kill—and I don’t mean to kill it. When I came on board, we sold so much Kistler Chardonnay, over 100 cases in a year. It was also on by the glass and I was afraid to take it off because the response was so heavy. I took it off [the glass list] but I still serve it by the glass because people ask for it. There are still a lot of people who want rich, buttery chardonnay.

…and Bergstrom the only Oregon pinot noir.
We do well with that and with Copain. They have a little Burgundian structure on them, a little precision in the acid, they don’t seem over extracted, and they’re not blasted with oak. I’ve been very successful with both. We have a lot of French people and they sit down and say, “We want an American wine.” If you give them a heavily oaked, 15 percent alcohol wine, they’re not happy. They’re not used to that. Bergstrom and Copain’s wines are more moderate. With Chardonnay I give them the Sandhi, from Raj Parr and Sashi Moorman. I also have Patz & Hall by the glass. The Patz & Hall is there to satisfy the classic chardonnay drinker, the Sandhi to show what’s new. The Sandhi does well with our cuisine. By California standards, it’s high in acidity, not as heavy on oak, and doesn’t get in way of the food.

Why do you think the Colin-Morey Meursault was such a hit?
We’re doing incredibly well with them. He has a very specific style, with almost riesling components on the nose, stone fruit flavors. I’m certainly behind it. I’m a big fan of his wines and they seem to be premox-resistant. He took over in 2006, and his 2007s are really laser-like.

How does a red Rioja become one of the most popular by the glass wines at a French fish restaurant? Is that something new?
It’s been on for a long time. We had one dish on the pairing menu, the black bass with Iberico ham sauce, and that wine worked incredibly well with it. The López de Heredia is not too extracted. I know, it doesn’t make a lot of sense—like the malbec pairing we talked about last year—and yet it worked. I kept it on after that.

You’ve noted a significant increase in wine sales as a percentage of Le Bernardin’s total sales. But you don’t note any price increase.
I stayed very conservative on pricing. We’re just selling more. We had a very successful season. The restaurant was closed for five weeks for renovations, and when we reopened after Labor Day, people wanted to come. So I did better for the fourth quarter. Generally speaking, I think New York had a good fall season.

In 2009, during the crisis, people started experimenting less and went to restaurants they knew—where they knew they would have a good experience. Now, people have gotten a little tired of hearing non-stop bad news.

A friend is the president of Wempe and I went to his place on Fifth Avenue to get my watch fixed. I had to wait to get into the store—it was packed and it wasn’t foreign tourists, it was Americans, buying heavily. I spoke lately to one big hedge fund guy. I told him, “I don’t get it, you read the newspaper and you think it’s the end of the world.” He said, “Nobody knows.”

Europe looks very dark but so far it hasn’t affected us. We have ups and downs: Certain days you sell like crazy, certain days you sell nothing. But generally speaking it’s very good. People want to spend on quality.

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