“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.”
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