Welcome home to a new world of bespoke restaurant wines
House wine reborn
Credit: Ricardo Santos

Way back when, I used to go to an elderly French bistro for dinner sometimes with an equally elderly friend of my mother-in-law. The place was called Le Veau d'Or (acquired recently by the team behind NYC's Frenchette, with plans for revivification). It was the old school's idea of old-school: one gloomy, stooped waiter in a jacket, tripes à la mode de Caen and veal kidneys on the menu, and a house red served from a big screw-cap bottle kept below the bar. That wine was not good. I kept to steak au poivre and ordered bourbon. So did Mrs. L., my mother-in-law's friend. She also smoked cigarettes at the table. No one told her not to. She was 85 and mean.

Things change. Mrs. L. left this earth for heaven—I'm sure God doesn't tell her what she can or can't do either—and recently, I sat in on a blending session for a house wine that Hirsch Vineyards makes for Tennessee's Blackberry Mountain. Winemaker Jasmine Hirsch and Blackberry Mountain's Andy Chabot and Logan Griffin went through samples from 10 different barrels (out of 280) from Hirsch's 2020 vintage, saying things like (Chabot) "The '18 Stockinger from 8A1 smells a little dark, then it's zippy and zesty and really kinda cool," and (Hirsch) "Can I make a suggestion? I think with this blend you've kind of nailed it on the fruit. But I might try it without the 6C." No screw-cap jugs here.

In other words, the new world of house wines is very different from the old. Call them bespoke restaurant wines. To make them, wine directors work directly with wineries to create cuvées that work particularly well with the restaurant's menu. For instance, Chabot's goal was to create a wine that would be consumed soon after release rather than cellared. So, tasting today, he's asking himself, "What do we think is going to be pleasing a year from now for a guest? We have to think of it as a primary thing. It has to appeal to people right off the bat." For Paul Einbund at The Morris in San Francisco, the idea was an immediately drinkable California red he could pour by the ounce (fun idea); the result, a lively, blueberry-accented blend of robust red varieties from the Sierra Foothills. These are only two of many.

And at the blending trial for Blackberry Mountain, work goes on. After tasting through each of the 10 samples separately—from different barrels and different blocks of the vineyard—Hirsch, Chabot, and Griffin now go through eight trial blends, assembling them with graduated cylinders, pouring carefully, and then tipping them into glasses. It's all nuance (and all very good). Almost done. Until Chabot says, "I think blend number six is pretty darn good. Really good. But I'd hate to just stop there—if we tried adding a little of the 11C, just to lift the freshness … "

Drink the House

Nine top bespoke restaurant wines to order the next time you dine

  1. Union Square Hospitality Group, NYC
    2013 Il Baccante
    Toscana Rosso

    (made by Vecchie Terre di Montefili)
  2. The Nicolett, Lubbock, Texas
    NV House Red
    (made by Kim McPherson of McPherson Cellars)
  3. The Kahala Hotel & Resort, Honolulu
    Donson Champagne
    (made by La Maison Donson)
  4. Fogo de Chão, various locations
    2018 Eulila Cachapoal
    Valley Red

    (made by Viña Vik)
  5. The Morris, San Francisco
    NV House Red
    (made by Miraflores Winery)
  6. Blackberry Mountain, Walland, Tennessee
    2019 Hirsch Vineyards,
    Estate, Pinot Noir, Blackberry Mountain Edition

    (made by Hirsch Vineyards)
  7. RPM Steak, Chicago
    2016 Les Chèvres
    Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

    (made by Checkerboard Vineyard)
  8. City Winery, various locations
    2018 Pinot Noir Reserve,
    Cuvée Bacigalupi

    (made by City Winery, fruit from Bacigalupi Vineyards in Sonoma County)
  9. Cote, NYC
    2019 Piora Syrah
    (made by Presqu'ile Winery, fruit from Camp 4 Vineyard)

October 2021