Might Makes White

Jeffery Lindenmuth - March 2009

Big-time California winemakers are expanding their portfolios with attractive, value conscious bottlings in sync with the restaurant times.

While boutique producers and niche offerings may seduce a savvy minority of consumers, most diners are looking for flavor, familiarity, consistency, and, above all, value—traits one finds aplenty in some of the most familiar wine portfolios in the nation, as they increasingly cater to the realistic needs and desires of restaurant operators, which, in certain instances, can include on-premise exclusivity.

Size matters When looking for white wines with staying power, production volume becomes a consideration: to ensure ongoing availability of a potential crowd favorite and because production scale often relates directly to value. "We own a lot of vineyards and we make enough of each of our wines so that we do not run out of things. We focus on the 50,000 to 100,000 case segment. That's the sweet spot where you can find a brand around the country, but not on every corner," explains Chris Indeli­cato, president and CEO of Delicato Family Vineyards, which includes not just Delicato, but brands like Irony and Loredona.

DFV seeks to produce on a substantial scale without sacrificing diversity. Rather, Delicato remains focused on the long-term growth of single-sku, or "few-sku" labels, like Loredona, a white-centric brand including Pinot Grigio, Riesling, and Viognier: "We try to find and deliver a couple of really good value propositions with this brand. It also addresses the maturation of the consumer as they move away from White Zinfandel into Riesling and Pinot Grigio." By not overproducing in quantity, Indelicato says the brands are able to avoid off-premise discounting, which can create challenging price comparisons for a restaurant.

That's not to imply that small production whites have no place on a restaurant wine list for those willing to monitor the vicissitudes of vintage and demand. Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery has created several single vineyard companions to their ­wildly popular Reserve Chardonnay. Most surprisingly, this Vineyard Select series represents a departure in style from the big classic California style of their flagship Reserve. "These Chardonnays have more acidity, more Russian River character, which gives you a very different possibility, especially when pairing with food," says winemaker Sarah Quider.

Each of the three single-vineyard Chardonnays is limited to around 300 to 500 cases, so Ferrari-Carano crafts Tre Terre, a blend of the three specifically for the on-premise market. "The Tre Terre is a few thousand cases instead of a few hundred," explains Quider. "We stay true to our brand, but also broaden our horizons with these smaller productions."

In January, Geyser Peak Winery celebrated the official launch of its Block Collection, which in­cludes the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Ranches and the 2007 Chardonnay Water Bend Alexander Valley. Specific blocks within mul­­­tiple vineyards are harvested and vinified separately, then blended to reflect the terroir of their respective regions.

According to Gey­ser Peak vice presi­dent/wine­maker Mick Schroeter, the labels in the Block Collec­tion are "approachable (under $25 a bottle), beautifully crafted wines of balance and character, crafted to greatly enhance quality dining experiences, and act as ambassadors for the Russian River and Alexander Valleys." With production at less than 4,000 cases each, they're intended primarily for the on-premise market.

Proprietary on-premise In an era when wine price comparisons are as near to hand as a guest's iphone or Blackberry, it can be a good idea to avoid these unfair comparisons to off-premise pricing altogether. Trinchero Family Estates addresses this sensitivity with exclusively on-premise whites, as in the case of their recently introduced SeaGlass. "We feel restaurants want offerings that aren't on every end-cap display, but are still able to quickly relate a brand message," states Bill Barry, vice president of hospitality and foodservice for Trinchero Family Estates. "As a seafood-friendly wine, we created SeaGlass to be immediately evocative of the shore and the coastline, and also capitalize on consumer trends. We took fruit from Santa Barbara vineyards and put it in Stelvin caps, which follows consumer acceptance of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling." Seaglass Sauvignon Blanc 2007 was made in the amount of 9,000 cases, and that quantity will be more than doubled for the 2008 vintage, since it quickly found a home as a by-the-glass pour for several large accounts.

Rather than create entirely new brands, E. & J. Gallo Winery has chosen to craft restaurant exclusives within some of their most iconic names, like Frei Brothers. "Frei Brothers has great acceptance and also does very well critically, representing one of the best values in the Gallo portfolio," declares Carmen Castorina, director of communications of E. & J. Gallo Winery. Gallo offers an on-premise companion to the popular Frei Brothers Russian River Chardonnay: a Sonoma County Chardonnay. "We source the grapes from all over Sonoma and are able to offer this wine at a great price point. It also offers the added comfort that customers will not see this wine at retail," says Castorina.

Steve Lohr, senior vice president of planning and development of J. Lohr Vineyards and Wine in San Jose, feels it's important to offer something exclusive to restaurants in acknowledgment of the brand building they accomplish for wineries: "There are so many brands and wines out these days that it's very competitive for a restaurateur. They want wines that have wide consumer recognition, but would prefer something not available from retailers." J. Lohr October Night Vine­yard Chardonnay 2006 fills this role, "nearly impossible" to find off-premise, with a dis­tinctive flavor and unique backstory from the inclusion of Musqué clone Chardonnay.

White wine beyond white tablecloth Trinchero is also taking a cue from their wildly successful on-premise Ménages à Trois White, a somewhat quirky white blend of Moscato, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc, which Barry describes as "a little bit off-dry, which makes it great with fresh seafood and shellfish." Along with introducing a Ménages à Trois Chardonnay, Trinchero will capitalize on the popularity of sweeter wines with Firehose, which includes off-dry Riesling and Gewürztraminer varietals. "This wine really rounds out the portfolio and gives alternatives for any wine program," explains Barry.

According to Lohr, two sub-labels, Cypress Vineyards and Painted Bridge, serve the needs of more casual dining with their value price point and a good range of varietal wines. "We offer six Cypress varietal wines so a restaurant can have more than one and have a one-stop solution," he says. "The wines are Monterey County, so they have good flavor ripeness yet keep high acidity, making them very food-friendly. And they offer ‘Central Coast' prestige at a ‘California' price point."