Worth a Sip: Restaurants Turn to Upscale Producers for House Wines

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on November 8, 2012) 

Let’s be honest: the restaurant house wine has long enjoyed a dubious distinction.  The most affordable wine on the list?  Probably.  A great wine?  Probably not.

I’d say this remains true at many eateries these days.  Cheap wine is an easy way for restaurateurs to make a buck, since selling it at $7 a glass and squeezing four, maybe five, glasses out of every bottle can allow them to cover their cost handsomely.  And the unassuming diner wins with a buzz for cheap.

But I’ve noticed a refreshing trend in recent years – more and more quality eateries focusing on high value rather than low price point for their wine house programs, and putting extra weight on quality.

Several years ago, as my wife and I settled into a luxe meal at Roy’s of Hawaii on the Kahana coast of Maui, we got a kick out of noticing that their house wines were produced in our hometown of Santa Barbara.  The chardonnay, the server touted, was made by a man named Jim Clendenen.  “I know him,” I bragged.  But I was mostly impressed by the fact that this popular upscale chain had turned to the man behind Au Bon Climat, one of our area’s most celebrated producers, for their entry-level stuff.  My wife didn’t care that I ordered one of the cheapest whites on the list; she knew it would be a great sipper.

Recently, I tasted wine with Bilo Zarif, the bon vivant behind Summerland Winery.  I jokingly asked for his autograph, since I’d recently seen him on an episode of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” (don’t judge me, my wife makes me watch it), walking some of the show’s well to-do ladies through a vineyard.  It turns out Summerland Winery makes four wines – a sauvignon blanc, a rosé, a cabernet and a pinot , all from Paso Robles – for housewife Lisa Vanderpump’s successful Villa Blanca Restaurant.  I know winemaker Etienne Terlinden well; he’s a talented, versatile, award-winning guy.  So ordering the house wine here – celeb sighting or not – would be a very safe bet.

And this is true at Chuck’s Waterfront Grill, too, where I was among some 150 people at a recent harborside wine tasting to benefit the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara.  As we meandered through their revamped outdoor setting – with awnings that look like sails in the wind and granite floors that radiate heat – we tasted several high-end labels, like Cargassacchi and Fess Parker.  But what really piqued my interest was the amount of house wine being poured – all great stuff, and all by great producers.

“We look for wines that people don’t have to think about too much, something to sip while you’re enjoying a meal and enjoying the boats on the wharf,” says owner Steve Hyslop of their house wine program.  “But also something good enough so they ask, ‘Hey, what was that?’”

To that end, Hyslop and his team put winemaker’s offerings to the test each year.  “We taste all these different samples they bring to us and then decide on what we think will work well for us and for our guests,” Hyslop says.  “They’ve got to have good acidity and fit well with the food we do.”  Chuck’s Waterfront Grill and its upstairs sister restaurant, the Endless Summer Café, draw steady crowds with a wide range of surf and turf specialties.

Currently, the Endless Summer Café’s house label features three wines, all produced by winemaker Megan McGrath Gates at Lucas & Lewellen Winery.  A 2009 merlot, a 2011 chardonnay and a non-vintage Rincon Red – a blend of 93% sangiovese and 7% petit sirah – each appears on the wine list for just $22 a bottle.

The house red at Chuck’s Waterfront is made by local pioneer winemaker Fred Brander.  It’s a 2008 syrah – a luscious, rich wine – that goes for $35 a bottle.  “Exceptional for the price,” says Hyslop.  “You’re getting a steak?  This is your wine.”  And the restaurant’s house white is made by the aforementioned Jim Clendenen.  This is a business partnership based on a longstanding relationship, since Clendenen and Hyslop attended UCSB together many years ago.  The 2008 “Café Chardonnay” is offered at just $23 a bottle.  “I might run the other way if I saw an ’08 chard, but Jim’s wines have that ability to age really well,” says Hyslop.

The upscale focus on house beverages doesn’t end with wine, either.  For years, the restaurants’ best-selling beer on tap is their proprietary Endless Summer Blonde, a classic, medium-bodied, warm-weather brew.  It’s produced by Firestone Brewery.

These great private label wines and beers are a win for the restaurants and a win for the consumer, of course.  But they’re also a win – a viable marketing boon – for the winemakers, themselves.  “On the back label of each wine, it says who made it and where it came from,” says manager Gary Lynd, a recent addition to the Chuck’s team after stints at State & A Restaurant and the Canary Hotel.  “And since we always carry other wines by the guys who make our house wines, people often upgrade and try others, by the glass or by the bottle.”

There are some other neat examples of this around town.  Fred Brander, for example, also makes the house syrah and house chardonnay for Cold Springs Tavern, and the house merlot for Ca’Dario.  Craig Jaffurs, locally renowned for his Rhone wine prowess, makes the private label syrah for both Opal Restaurant and Arigato Sushi in downtown Santa Barbara; each year, the owners from both eateries “come to the winery to taste through wines in barrel, they tell us what would work with the food at their restaurant and we go back to them with specific wines that fit,” says Jaffurs general manager Dave Yates.  Arigato’s house chardonnay, by the way, was just entrusted to a guy whose Burgundian prowess may well be a combination of both natural knack and genetic predisposition: Drake Whitcraft.

In Other News:
What a blast we had at the Celebration of Harvest at Rancho Sisquoc in Santa Maria, which took place on October 13th!  I did notice a dose of star power, as actors Jason Priestley and Tiffany Amber-Thiessen – Beverly Hills 90120 fans, take note – sipped together.  But every autumn, I tout this as the region’s culinary event of record for the awesome food and wine, and, once again, the 100+ members of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association did not disappoint.  Neither did Mother Nature, whose sparkling blue skies capped a lavish affair that included some great wine finds, like The Hitching Post boys’ “Perfect Set” pinot noir and winemaker Sonja Magdevski’s Casa Dumetz “Babi’s” gewürztraminer.  My wife, far more particular about white wines than I, gave the day’s biggest thumbs-up to Tessa Marie Parker’s vermentino, which was brilliant, unassuming and easy on the lips.  My wife likes her whites like her men, I guess. 

Gabe Saglie prefers brunettes but has never passed up a taste of an Endless Summer Blonde.  He’s also senior editor for www.travelzoo.com.  You can email him at gabesaglie@yahoo.com.

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