Ever had the nagging feeling that your wine offering isn’t quite performing as well as it might be? Richard Woodard sits in as five sommeliers bring their lists for a check-up with the wine doctor.
In association with The Wine Institute of California
We all need a bit of a check-up from time to time. Maybe your wine list simply isn’t performing as it did in its exuberant youth, or maybe one or two of its parts aren’t quite moving as they should – leaving you with a persistent twinge in the region of the cash till.
Whatever the reason, there’s nothing like getting the opinion of a trusted professional to set your mind at rest and to put that spring back in your step. And that’s why we have teamed up with The Wine Institute of California to produce the Imbibe Wine List Surgery, aimed at prescribing a little remedial therapy from the Golden State for a group of sommelier patients.
Swapping his MW for an MD, our man donning the metaphorical white coat and stethoscope is Peter McCombie, fresh from a fact-finding trip out West to see what’s new. And, you’ll be relieved to hear, his hands are warm…
While not wishing to confuse the roles of physician and priest, the good doctor is nonetheless on a mission to regale his patients with tales of California’s vinous charms – and to set a few nervous minds at ease along the way.
Wine styles first. Don’t these tend to be big, alcoholic, overoaked and rather blowsy? In other words, bad for our restaurants’ health? That rather ignores the huge variety of wines now available without prescription in the UK, from enormous, muscly old-vine Zinfandels, to delicate, fragrant, cool-climate whites, without even a kiss of oak to their name. Areas like Sonoma Coast, Monterey and San Luis Obispo are cool-climate enclaves to seek out, turning old, hot preconceptions about California on their head.
A QUESTION OF STYLE
‘I also think we can be quite down on California because we want the European style,’ adds Dr McCombie. ‘But someone like John Shafer would say: “We can’t do the European style – we have to have our own style instead.” And I think that makes for more interesting wines.’
A similar argument deals with the question of alcohol, he continues. ‘The winemakers over there would say that they need the hang time to get flavour ripeness. The challenge is to get the balance right – and I’m never frightened of high alcohol if the balance is right.’
Some blame this often mistaken impression of California’s wines on the perceived ‘Parkerisation’ of many producers – in other words, the chasing of high scores from The Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator by creating blockbuster wines in a Parker-friendly style.
But the first patient in Dr McCombie’s surgery, L’Etranger head sommelier Matthew Mawtus, believes his customers are, if anything, put off by the mention of Parker points – and what this might say about the style of the wine.
‘There is an American palate that loves lushness and richness,’ muses medical man McCombie. ‘But the funny thing is that, when you talk to wine people in California, they often prefer their own cooler vintages, which usually have lower scores.’ So if you suffer from concerns about wines that are over-extracted, overripe and over here, choose your vintages carefully. You may end up with something not only more suited to your restaurant, but also cheaper.
More than one patient came into Dr McCombie’s surgery reporting the same complaint: low-end California wines tend to be branded and geared to retail, while the top end is very expensive. It’s a misconception from which the doctor too has suffered on occasion.
THE MIDDLE ROAD
‘Yes, I would admit to being guilty of this,’ he says. ‘I believe we often think: “God, that’s expensive.” But if you look at the quality objectively, there are some really good wines. You have to look at overall quality.’
And the mid-market wines are there too, he believes. ‘The lower end is very visible on the high street, while the upper end is great. There are wines in the middle, but we’ve got to work to find them from suppliers. The reputation of some of the cult wines is a bit unfair on these mid-market wines, which can be pretty good value for money.’
Finally, he advises that sommeliers looking for a regular prescription should also consider producers with a long-term commitment to the UK – wineries like Cuvaison, Shafer, Ridge and Bonny Doon. ‘They’ve worked this market and they’ve made that decision to be here and to have the wines in the right places,’ he says. ‘These wines have a fundamental quality – they’re not cheap, but will sell – and they have a proven track record.’
So who’ll be first to submit to the good doctor’s tender ministrations? Come along now, don’t be nervous – just relax and lie down on the couch. This won’t hurt a bit…
Matthew Mawtus, head sommelier, L’Etranger
Matthew Mawtus inherited about 30% of the wine list from his predecessor, but is happy that he’s managed to put his own stamp on it. He gets an early medical thumbs-up for the reduced prices on his lunchtime/early birds list – although Dr McCombie wags an admonitory finger at the ‘too conservative’ whites selection.
Turning to California, there are two obvious themes: Napa Cabernet and, er, more Napa Cabernet. The medico’s brow furrows at the lack of diversity, but Mawtus has the answer ready at hand: L’Etranger has an abnormally high French punter count (about half of its customers are ex-pats) – which also explains the large amount of Bordeaux on the list.
‘I have to pay attention to that,’ explains Mawtus. ‘If my French customers want to go off-piste, Napa Cabernet makes them feel more comfortable. It’s a great way of getting Old World customers into New World wines.’
Pretty much a clean bill of health. Dr McCombie prescribes one or two ‘more offbeat’ wines for the restaurant’s lunch and early bird menu – but finds that the patient’s main list has quite a robust constitution.
‘He knows what he needs to sell,’ says our friendly GP. ‘I guess in a perfect world I would like to see a little bit more variation, but I think the point about Napa Cabernet and his customers is entirely valid.
‘We’ve got Dominus, Harlan, Phelps – I think it’s a good list. And on the whites, there’s Shafer, Newton (which I love), Peter Michael and lots of different Kistlers – you can really play around. There’s Sauvignon Blanc, the Rhône varietals… it really covers the bases well.’
Lunch and Early Bird Wine List
Available between 12pm-3pm and 6pm-7pm
For Tables up to 4 persons
(Order must be placed prior to 7pm)
|List Price||Lunch Price|
Krug Non Vintage
Veuve Cliquot Vintage 1982
Louis Roederer Brut PremierNV
Laurent Perrier “Grand Siecle”
Jacquart Brut 1990
Dom Pérignon 2000
“S” de Salon Blanc de Blancs Brut 1997
Cristal Rosé 2000
Jo Eames, The Peach Pub Company
A ten-outlet group in the heart of England, The Peach Pub Company offers good gastropub food partnered with an uncluttered yet imaginative wine list.
But, like many other patients, Jo Eames reports an uncomfortable squeezing sensation in the price area. ‘I’m trying to get more wines in at under £20, but that’s getting harder and harder,’ she tells the doctor. ‘People want good things, but they’re less willing to try something new and they don’t want to pay more than £20. Ideally, they want to drink Sancerre at £19.’
The doctor strokes his scarf thoughtfully. He’s happy with the list’s vital signs – but his expert eye alights on only one offering from California: Cline Cellars Syrah. What’s more, Eames worries that price increases may force her to have her ‘really refined’ Cline surgically removed in the near future.
A tricky case. Top-end wines will be too rich for Peach’s delicate constitution, but the patient also needs to steer clear of branded supermarket fodder.
Eames considers self-medicating with DeLoach Pinot Noir from Liberty – ‘it’s reasonably priced’, she reasons – and mentions that one pub in Bedford stocks Quady’s Black Muscat. McCombie MD’s eyes light up. ‘If you get the staff behind that, I think that could be real punter heaven once you get people to taste it,’ he enthuses.
The sawbones has other suggestions: Edmeades Zinfandel from Fells, and Cuvaison – ‘they’re not cheap, but they’re sensibly priced. The Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir are lovely.’
Plus a rather left-field suggestion: Gallo. ‘Frei Ranch might be a little expensive, but we shouldn’t think of them as a monolith – they have some really interesting wines. Why not Mirassou? It’s owned by Gallo, but doesn’t have the name if you want separation from the supermarket thing.’
Roberto della Pietra, Roussillon
You don’t need to be a man of Dr McCombie’s qualifications and expertise to recognise that a restaurant called Roussillon is bound to feature more than its fair share of wines from France’s sunlit south.
But a thorough examination of the very chunky list reveals ‘real variety’ and a courageously small selection of big-name Bordeaux and Burgundy – ‘it’s not just a me-too list’, notes the doctor with some satisfaction.
In California terms, there’s a healthy selection of whites, notably four cuvées of Schramsberg sparkling, plus two Peter Michael Chardonnays and a Marsanne/Roussanne blend from Enigma.
But what’s this? Only one red? Roberto della Pietra comes clean and admits to the doctor that he hasn’t replaced sold-out wines here recently and, what’s more, he’s got a bit of a problem – price. ‘And, for us, the New World is a much harder sell,’ he admits. ‘But it’s the price that I find difficult.’
Some strong medicine for the patient. ‘I think we are a little bit obsessed with how expensive we think the top-end wines from California are,’ opines the doctor.
‘Wines like Shafer aren’t cheap, but if it was a European wine, we’d just say: “That’s the price.” Stag’s Leap I think is perfectly reasonable, also Ridge. It’s true that cult wines can reflect on the others in terms of value for money – but that’s a little bit unfair on the rest.’
Using Roussillon’s southern French theme as the basis for his diagnosis, Dr McCombie suggests a bigger role for Rhône varietals from California – and finds a wide array of possible candidates on the books of Vineyard Cellars.
Toby Ellis, The Atlas
In these changing times, Toby Ellis is wondering if the wine list at The Atlas isn’t in need of a little cosmetic surgery: a nip here, a tuck there and, in his words, ‘I’m looking to pad out the middle a little, with more wines under £20’.
That could be bad news for the only Californian wine on The Atlas’ trim list: Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel, priced at £31.50. ‘It would be a shame to kick it out,’ says Ellis ruefully. ‘I know there are some great Californians out there, but we don’t want to break that £30 barrier.’
Casting his practised eye over the shape of the list, our physician likes what he sees. ‘Almost half the reds and more than half the whites are already under £20, so you’re doing pretty well,’ he says. ‘And I have this theory that you need your more expensive wines to pull the others up.’
The McCombie medical opinion is against the Seghesio going under the knife, but his exemplary bedside manner makes him appreciative of The Atlas’ financial constraints.
‘Seghesio is a really good, restaurant-friendly wine, and not necessarily too big – decent value and balanced,’ he muses. ‘So why not switch to the “basic” Seghesio Zin?’
‘It’s possible,’ replies Ellis, but the doctor’s not finished yet. He’d also like the patient to consider a more radical procedure – mulling over possible listings for DeLoach or Lyeth Merlot from sole supplier Liberty. ‘It’s great value and it really tastes like Merlot,’ McCombie suggests.
Laurene Amiet, Axis, 1 Aldwych
At 1 Aldwych, Laurene Amiet is proudly showing off her new baby – a fresh, snappy list designed for Axis, the venue’s new brasserie-style restaurant. The first fragile few weeks in any list’s life are vital, so she’s keen to get some good advice from an expert in the field.
Two things are immediately apparent: it’s an approachable list, designed for Axis’ clientele of 50/50 City types and tourists, and it’s not exactly weighed down with Californian content. Only the Morgan Sauvignon Blanc at £47.50 makes the cut.
‘The proportion of fine reds is higher than fine whites, but that makes sense as people are more likely to order fine reds,’ says the doctor approvingly. ‘But there’s lots of Bordeaux and it’s very European – is that deliberate?’
‘I’m a big fan of Californian wine,’ stresses Amiet. ‘The problem is at the moment that I can’t add wine priced up to £50-£60 because I know I’m not going to sell it. For me, it’s a credit crunch wine list.’
The doctor concurs that, on a brasserie list, ‘the action is all under £50’, but counsels using a little imagination tinged with realism.
‘On reds, perhaps the opportunity is more with Rhône styles,’ he says. ‘Your problem is that Cabernet from Napa is going to be expensive. But perhaps Rhône varietals from other parts could be more interesting.’
Scribbling out a prescription for Marmesa Vineyards from San Luis Obispo – a cool-climate producer handled by Bibendum – he also advises Amiet to at least consider established players like Cuvaison, Shafer, Ridge and Bonny Doon. These, he says, have a ‘fundamental quality’, and will sell.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – May / June 2009