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Why It Pays to Order the House Wine

Thanks to a new breed of activist sommeliers, reports F&W’s Lettie Teague, house wines (once merely cheap) now have real cachet and feature serious bottlings from first-class wineries. House wine made by Au Bon Climat, anyone?

My friend Laura always opts for the house wine, even if she doesn’t know what it is. In fact, she said to me recently, “If it’s a good restaurant, I figure they’re going to care about the wine that they serve.” Indeed, she had a glass of the house Cabernet the last time we went out. Laura is a restaurant critic and a longtime resident of the Hamptons, a place where, she noted, almost nobody drinks the house wine. “In the Hamptons, it’s still considered déclassé to order house wine,” said Laura. And yet the Hamptons may be one of the few places where house wine hasn’t become fashionable. (It’s almost certainly the only place where people willingly pay $100 for a pound of lobster salad.)

House wine was once a by-the-glass red or white, chosen by the sommelier or restaurant manager on the basis of price. Indeed, the selection process went something like this: Find the cheapest wine possible; charge the highest price possible. It was a formula I endorsed back in my days of wholesale wine sales, when I touted a certain domestic Chardonnay with a single virtue: It cost only five cents a glass. Today’s house wines are quite different, thanks to higher-quality wine in the world overall, as well as to a new generation of wine directors who care more about a wine’s pedigree than its price. Indeed, these wine directors are as likely to be making their house wine as buying it, but either way, they’ve transformed this former bottom-line beverage into a source of personal pride.

Of course, profit is still an important part of the equation. As Brian Duncan, wine director of Bin 36 restaurant in Chicago, noted, “I have investors to please.” Duncan, who was at work on his latest house wine when we spoke, has produced wines in conjunction with famed winemakers like Paul Hobbs and wineries like Beckmen Vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. Rajat Parr, wine director of the Michael Mina restaurant group, is doing much the same, working with several famous producers to create the house wines that are served in the Michael Mina restaurants. But Parr, like Duncan, doesn’t just put his restaurant’s name on the label; he actually visits the wineries several times a year, choosing the blend and even the barrels that will be used for, say, the Michael Mina Syrah from Qupé or the Chardonnay he produces in conjunction with Jim Clendenen at Au Bon Climat. (Parr has been traveling overseas as well: A Vosne-Romanée from Burgundian négociant Nicolas Potel is a future house wine.)

“Raj is down here pretty often, more often than most,” says Rob Fry, marketing director at Au Bon Climat. He added that Parr isn’t the only sommelier making wine at Au Bon Climat; Daniel Johnnes of Daniel Boulud’s restaurant group also produces a Chardonnay there. In fact, Au Bon Climat has become the source of several house wines—Fry estimated that 15 percent of the winery’s production is now devoted to private labels. But, Fry maintained, each wine is different, in deference to individual preferences and styles. For example, he said, “We made a bigger, richer Chardonnay for Emeril’s than we did for Michael Mina.” Although all of his wines are labeled Michael Mina cuvées, Parr is reluctant to call them house wines. “They’re wines that represent what we believe in, that work with our cuisine,” he said. That sure sounded like a house wine to me, but I kept my thoughts to myself, particularly after Parr said he was annoyed by a blogger who described them as such.

Bobby Stuckey, wine director and co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, was equally reluctant to use the H-word to describe his signature wine, explaining that his reluctance dated back to his days as a busboy, when house wines were undrinkable and cheap. Stuckey’s house white, Scarpetta Tocai, is neither, of course. Made in the Friulian hills of northern Italy (where Stuckey travels several times a year to oversee its production), it’s an opulent and aromatic Tocai that costs $44 a bottle on the Frasca wine list ($24 retail) and is one of the restaurant’s best sellers. Stuckey loves the wines of this region, also the origin of his restaurant’s cuisine.

The house wine of Smith & Wollensky, a Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Girard winery in Napa, is similarly suited to its cuisine. Nothing goes better (or at least more often) with a steak than Napa Cabernet. The house Cab is also the restaurant’s most popular offering, though there are hundreds of other Napa Cabs to choose from and, at $79, it’s not the cheapest on the list. (That distinction belongs to the $59 Markham.) The S&W Cabernet also comes in a variety of formats—from magnums to double magnums—and multiple vintages. In addition to the current 2004 wine, two other S&W vintages are offered at not inconsiderable sums: The 2001 costs $249, and the 2003 is $138. Offering older vintages of a house wine seems like a particularly bold move, as a house wine is, almost by definition, a transitory thing.

Or a seasonal thing, as is the case at another Alan Stillman–owned New York City restaurant, Park Avenue. There, the house wine changes according to the time of year, along with the name, food and decoration of the room. For example, Park Avenue Summer was a 2006 Pinot Noir rosé from the cult Santa Barbara winery Hitching Post, which also produced the 2005 Pinot Noir that was Park Avenue Autumn. Currently on offer is Park Avenue Winter, a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon made by Hedges Family Estate in Washington state. Even the bottles are designed to reflect the time of year: The Cabernet comes topped with a large dollop of white wax, presumably meant to resemble snow. Alan Stillman’s son Michael, who is in charge of all the Stillman-owned restaurants’ wine programs, said, “We’re looking to do a Sancerre with Pascal Jolivet for Park Avenue Spring.” Michael is also still looking for the right producer for an all-seasons house Champagne. “I’m tasting a lot of Champagne,” he said.

Meanwhile, Stillman is also tasting house-wine contenders for a third family-owned property in New York, Quality Meats on West 58th Street. For the first Quality Meats bottlings, Stillman has sought partnerships with high-profile female Napa winemakers like Mia Klein and Delia Viader because, he said, “Women add an extra dimension.” (I assumed he was talking about the wine.)

With all this added dimension and complexity come higher prices. Most of the house wines I found cost between $14 and $25 a glass, and up to $85 a bottle. And yet, they still seemed like bargains compared with many other wines on the lists. The house wines made by Brian Duncan of Bin 36 were among the few sub-$10 offerings I found: The Bin 36 Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay, made from Central Coast California fruit, all cost $8 a glass. But they are notable for another reason: They’re poured at other Chicago restaurants too, notably Naha and Custom House, which have both poured Bin 36 wines by the glass.

Duncan doesn’t find this particularly odd. After all, he points out, his list has featured the vinous works of fellow wine directors—like the Betts & Scholl Syrah produced by Richard Betts, wine director of Aspen’s the Little Nell. “Betts & Scholl is a good wine,” Duncan said. “I have no trouble featuring any wine if it’s good.” But Duncan isn’t content just to sell his house wine at his own restaurant or to a handful of competitors. He wants to sell to retailers as well. The Bin 36 Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot can all be found in wine stores around Chicago for $19 a bottle, and Duncan plans to expand. Several other wine directors are doing much the same: Bernie Sun, wine director of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant group, is selling III Somms Amitié, a Napa Cabernet Franc–dominant blend that Sun made along with two wine-professional friends, at Vongerichten’s restaurants, as well as other New York restaurants and some retail shops. Sun characterized selling wine wholesale as fun. (Clearly he’s never had to peddle five-cent Chardonnay.)

New York merchant Sherry-Lehmann has more restaurant house wines than any other retailer, as I discovered when I shopped at its Park Avenue store. Among the wines that Sherry-Lehmann currently carries are the Smith & Wollensky Private Reserve, the house white from Orsay (a pricey uptown bistro) and the house red of La Goulue (a socially fabulous Madison Avenue spot), although none are particularly easy to find. Some, in fact, are hidden from view. Would store manager Matt Wong consider placing them in a special house wine section? “That’s an interesting idea,” he replied, in a tone that suggested it was not.

And maybe he was right. After all, a more obvious display might bring undue attention to the fact that the retail price of the bottle was close to the price of a glass at the restaurant. For example, a glass of La Goulue’s Côtes-du-Rhône house red costs $12.50 at the restaurant—nearly the same as the $10 bottle in the store. And there was a $50 spread between the restaurant and retail prices of Cuvée Daniel. “Aren’t people outraged when they discover that the Daniel Champagne costs $35 a bottle at Sherry-Lehmann and $85 at the restaurant?” I asked Joy Land, who handles Sherry-Lehmann’s phone sales. “That’s never come up,” Land replied. Was it possible I was the only one who kept track of such things? Or were the restaurant customers different from the store’s clientele? (This was hard to believe, as the two places are only five blocks apart.)

The customers, said Land, were “evenly divided between people who have been to the restaurant and liked the wines and those who haven’t but, for example, want to have a little bit of the Daniel experience in their home.”

Was a four-star dining experience so easily replicated by a single bottle of wine? (Or by multiple bottles, in the case of Daniel, which has many house blends.) And what about the house wines of other restaurants? Would La Goulue’s house red make me more socially desirable? Would Modicum, the house wine of the French Laundry, be worth a five-month wait? (That’s how long it takes to get a reservation at the famed Napa Valley restaurant.) And how good were these wines, anyway?

Since most top house wines are also sold in stores (with the exception of those from Park Avenue and Quality Meats, as well as the Michael Mina bottlings, which Parr said “might be for sale sometime next year”), I decided to save time (and lots of money) by tasting them outside the restaurants. A few were clearly in need of the namesake restaurants’ food and decor. The Cuvée Daniel Champagne, for example. Produced by the Champagne grower Soutiran, it was light and quite high in acidity, though the 2006 Cuvée Daniel Chardonnay from Au Bon Climat was an excellent wine, as was the 2006 Michael Mina Au Bon Climat Chardonnay. The latter was surprisingly more “French” in style than the Daniel bottling—that is, less opulent and more minerally. The Michael Mina Qupé Syrah, another standout, was full bodied and earthy; an excellent basic Syrah.

The 2004 Smith & Wollensky Private Reserve was appealing in a straightforward way, with good structure and well-integrated tannins, and at $30, it was a good deal; as was the soft and fruity 2005 III Somms Amitié, for about $10 less. The showiest house wine—the 2003 Modicum Napa Cabernet, a.k.a. the French Laundry’s house wine—is produced in very limited quantities, though it is for sale for $100 retail (with a four-bottle limit). Made by French Laundry wine director Paul Roberts in conjunction with an unnamed Napa winery, its fruit is said to be sourced “somewhere in Rutherford.” The ’04 Modicum will be released sometime this spring.

The Modicum was certainly well made (if rather tannic), but the house wine I wanted to call my own was the 2005 Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc Les Figuières from Orsay. It was far from the priciest ($15) and it wasn’t made by a sommelier—though it did come from a superstar winemaking consultant, the Rhône Valley’s Jean-Luc Colombo. Full-bodied and a bit tropical with excellent acidity, it was simply delicious and I wanted more.

So I returned to Sherry-Lehmann, but couldn’t find the wine anywhere, or for that matter, any of the other wines I’d purchased a few weeks before. (Clearly, Matt Wong hadn’t liked my idea.) I asked a salesman named Richard where I could find the Orsay white. “Never heard of it,” said Richard. “It’s the house wine of the restaurant Orsay,” I offered. “Is it good?” he inquired. “The wine or the restaurant?” “The restaurant,” he said. Well, I replied, if they had a good house wine, their food is likely to be pretty good, too. Except, perhaps, in the Hamptons.

Published March 2008
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