The Wine's on the House

by Jim Clarke
April 2006

“A Bottle of white? A bottle of red?...” Back when Billy Joel could sum up restaurant wine choices in one line, house wines were cheap, anonymous, and nothing to write home about. In many places, the lowest-common-denominator approach has gone by the wayside, and restaurants are commissioning their own cuvees. At the Red Cat in New York, for example, there’s “Gatto Rosso,” a red blend made exclusively for them by Pio Cesare, one of Piedmont’s most respected and historic producers. For many, the popularity of wine-by-the-glass programs among guests (more choice) and restauranteurs (more profits) had put the house wine concept to rest; but now its being turned on its head.

Unfortunately, wine critics rarely rate house wines, and industry folk give them mixed reviews. David Singer of Libation Education says the selection is “hit or miss.” He spoke well of some wines; Emeril Lagasse’s series, now made by Fetzer Vineyards, he describes as “quite solid,” and felt that the restaurant No. 9 Park, in Boston, had a good Teroldego (made by Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat). Wine Spectator gave Emeril’s wines scores between 79 and 87 on their 100-point scale – scores in the same league as many wine-by-the-glass offerings.

Emeril claims his house wine is designed to appeal to his TV fans and newer winedrinkers, while some restauranteurs seem to be after the cachet. Consistency, not status, drives some: the Jean-Georges restaurant group is considering a house wine, but without his name on the label; Beverage Director Bernard Sun says a bottling especially for the restaurant group would provide a wine that matches well with their menu without searching for a replacement every few weeks as availability changes.

Wineries that make these house wines appreciate the steady business and freedom from marketing. Jim Clendenen has made house wines for a number of restaurants, including Emeril, the Patina Group in Los Angeles, and Rick Larusso. He says he enjoys the challenge of suiting a wine to a chef’s menu: lower alcohol wines for Emeril’s spicy dishes, more powerful Chardonnay’s for Joachim Splichal’s rich, French-influenced menu, etc. It also allows Au Bon Climat to maintain the window-dressing of a boutique winery while actually making over 100,000 cases a year, and to find good homes for unpopular or unknown varietals like that Teroldego at No. 9 Park.

Other wineries don’t find house wines a useful market; Chris Silva of St. Francis says there’s no point in making an anonymous wine when restaurants want to identify with his label, and Susan Sueiro at Gundlach Bundschu says they just aren’t interested in the lower price points.

However, both of those wineries have made special bottlings for local restaurants in the past, and this sort of neighborliness makes West Coast’s wine country prime territory for custom-made house wines. In some cases, the restauranteurs even take winemaking into their own hands; the Hitching Post, for one, as fans of Sideways will remind you. Up north in Oregon’s Willamette Valley Jack Czarnecki has three different local winemakers make wines for the Joel Palmer House’s mushroom-centric menu. Peter Rosback, of Sineann, makes the Pinot Noir, while Willamette Valley Vineyards and Amity contribute a Pinot Gris and a Riesling, respectively. All are strong, well-balanced wines with beautiful mouthfeels, and while you can have the house Pinot Noir for $48, a bottle of Sineann will run you $75.

Restaurant mark-ups being what they are, the best way to get a deal on a house wine remains buying it retail and serving it in your own house. But it’s good to know that sometimes you can put down the tome of a winelist and simply tell your server, “Gimme a glass of red.”