Good Libations

Jeffery Lindenmuth - May 2005

Whether motivated by the bottom line, professional curiosity, or mission fervor, sommeliers are pleasing diners with good wines listed at budget prices.

"Imagine if the price of admission to classical music was always $1,000. The ticket is too expensive, and no young people can go to the concert. Well, in a generation you have lost the appreciation; you have lost part of our history," explains Eric Simonis, who, as the sommelier for Philadelphia dining destination Lacroix at The Rittenhouse, is less concerned about perpetuating music, of course, than wine. Simonis is one of many sommeliers who choose to augment his wine list with the sorts of bargains you would expect to find in a bistro or casual ethnic restaurant rather than shoulder-to-shoulder with the award-winning cuisine of Jean-Marie Lacroix.

Simonis' list includes 80 wines under $45 and 35 wines under $40. For him, it's simply the right thing to do. "A restaurant focusing only on the wealthiest guests does not fulfill its mission, which is to share and expose the world of haute cuisine to the young generations. By allowing the guests to order good and fairly priced wines, we set the tone of the establishment," says Simonis.

When looking for wines to fill this niche, Simonis speaks of "the hunt." Indeed, with the dollar run through the global washing machine and competition for the best deals intense, a keen eye and quick trigger finger are helpful in bagging these wines. From the Rhône Valley and Languedoc-Roussillon, Simonis offers many gems under $40, like a 2000 Domaine des Tuileries Minervois, and a 2001 Carbades from Château de Pennautier. French émigré grapes are represented as well, with Malbec from Argentina, Carmenere from Chile, and Uruguayan Tannat among his trophies.

Far from being homely stepchildren, one senses that these wines are Simonis' greatest pride. "Once you have caught that very special wine at that very special price, there's a real pleasure in recommending a $38 wine. There lies the challenge!" he says.

At just 25 years of age, Nicolas Rouet, sommelier at Le Paradou in Washington, D.C., is naturally sensitive to the budget of the recent graduate. "Young people come in more and more, and they pay a lot of attention to the wines. Maybe it's because I'm young also, but they're always asking a lot of questions and are very interested." While the average bottle sale remains about $200, Rouet finds that lunch guests, shorter on time, and money, also light up at finding a few wine choices at $40.

His favorite regions for bargain shopping include France's Loire Valley and Portugal. "I'm looking to expand my values with Eastern Europe, Croatia, and Romania, to simply say to people that there are many countries that produce good wine."

Rajat Parr, wine director of Mina Group, finds wines under $40 are naturally suited to certain properties, like Seablue at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. "Seablue was probably the most fun list I've ever worked on. The restaurant is meant to be high-volume, fun, and energetic, so I wanted to put fun, interesting, esoteric wines on the list. And, honestly, the most fun wines are not really the most expensive ones," says Parr, whose Seablue list includes about 40 wines priced under $40.

Part of Parr's strategy for selling value-priced wine is to group them beneath innovative headings. "I think people need an endorsement," says Parr. "You need to make it exciting and intriguing, or people just assume the $30 wine is the worst one." At Seablue, these wines are collected in a section called "Off the Beaten Path," promoting their unusual origin. Well represented are up-and-coming regions of Spain like Valdeorras and Penedès, and from Slovenia he offers Vila Marija Pinot Grigio 2003 ($35). Parr ventures to the islands for aromatic whites, including the Greek grape Moschofilero from producers Boutari ($34) and Skouras ($33) as well as Argiolas Vermentino Costamolino Sardinia 2003 ($34) and Maestracci Vermentino E Prove Corsica 2002 ($40).

At the flagship restaurant Michael Mina in San Francisco, Parr collects his budget wines, ranging from $27 to $82, under the grandiose title "Wines of Consequence," describing them as wines that offer "personality and individuality, along with value." The highly international selection of about 30 wines includes Freja Pinot Noir from Oregon, Sierra Cantabria Crianza from Rioja, and Santa Duc Cairanne from the Rhône Valley, all priced under $40. Parr emphasizes that every wine, and every customer, receives the same care and attention. "The inexpensive wines live in the same cellar with the Petrus," says Parr. "And the staff is aware that everyone gets the same service, whether they spend $30 or $3,000."

Cliff Bramble, gm/partner for Rathbun's in Atlanta, oversees the list for the 215 seater. As a complement to chef/owner Kevin Rathbun's menu--with headings that range from Small Plates to Raw Plates, Big Plates, and Second Mortgage Plates--wines are listed in tiers of $10 increments, ranging from $22 to $62, followed by Second Mortgage and Third Mortgage (reds only). Within the $22, $32, and $42 tiers, most selections are available by the glass for $6.50, $8.50, and $10.50, respectively, and Rathbun will agree to open almost any bottle if the customer agrees to buy at least two glasses of it. What happens to all of those open bottles? "Fortunately, we're a high-volume restaurant," says Bramble. "We go through quite a few bottles a night, about 180 cases a month. About 45 to 48 percent of those are under $42 a bottle."

Chefs/partners Erich Schildman and Geoffrey McGrath follow a similar path at Chicago's La Fette, where customers can order a single pour of any wine priced under $40 (only a few are listed higher). According to McGrath, bottles account for about 65 percent of sales, and he admits to a certain amount of waste from those opened for by-the-glass purchases. "But it's a service to the guest," he says.
Robert Bohr, who helms the list of 3,500 wines, heavy on triple-digit prices, at Cru in Manhattan, takes issue with calling his lowest priced wines value wines. "Most lists are on a sliding scale," says the candid Bohr. "Consumers need to be aware that the more they spend, the better value they get. Inexpensive and value are very different."

At Cru the average bottle sale is about $150, and the lower priced selections are there not so much out of customer demand but because they are wines Bohr genuinely enjoys. From the Rhône Valley, he offers a dozen reds priced around $40, including Oriel "Courant" 2003 and Domaine d'Andézon 1999. American wines are represented by the likes of Flying Cloud Pinot Gris from California's Central Coast at $32 and Lieb Cellars Pinot Blanc from Long Island, just $30.

Sue Kim-Drohomyrecky, partner in Chicago's Spring and Green Zebra, feels the move toward value is driven from two fronts. "I've noticed that, ever since 9/11, expense accounts are not as rampant, so there is a sense that people are looking for better value. That also coincides with the increased availability of value in wine," says Kim-Drohomyrecky, who offers a list of about 70 wines, two-thirds of which are white, at Green Zebra. Many of the 20 wines under $40 are slightly quirky, made with classic grapes but from unexpected regions--a Gewürztraminer from Spain (Enate Somontano, $37), a Chenin Blanc from Walla Walla, Washington (L'Ecole No. 41 Walla Voila, $29). Searching for zesty Sauvignon Blanc, she looks south to Flinders Bay "Pericles" from West Australia ($34) and Tohu from Marlborough, New Zealand ($35).

Kim-Drohomyrecky also points out that offering lower priced wines does not necessarily mean a bottom-line compromise. "Most restaurateurs love selling low-end wines because your margins are better. I need to sell a substantial amount of lower priced wines, because I don't mark up the expensive bottles as much."

At the pricier Spring, Kim-Drohomyrecky finds that lower priced wines are especially attractive to her regular customers. "Like many restaurants, at Spring we have occasion diners and weekly diners. And those weekly diners may go for the $40 wine on a typical weeknight versus the $100 bottle they have with friends. It's nice that the regulars can really benefit from my finds."

Whether catering to the curtailed expense account, cultivating wine lovers for the future, or growing a global list, the toughest challenge facing the wine director is to offer excellent, and suitable, wines at every price. "I would love to drink any wine on my list. After many years, I've finally noticed that my own tastes are not that expensive," laughs Simonis. It is a revelation he is all too delighted to share with his guests.