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Restaurant Wines: The Customer Knows Best

By Stephen Eliot

There has been plenty of chatter among wine cognoscenti over the last couple of years about the precipitous decline in expensive wine sales in restaurants as consumers abandon high-ticket bottlings and how customers are increasingly turning their backs on the “big flavor” versions of California. We have been told by some self-impressed observers of the scene that pricey Napa Valley Cabernets, in particular, were doing nothing more than gathering dust on restaurant shelves and that only the unsophisticated denizens of mid-western country clubs were interested in once popular names like Duckhorn and Caymus and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Well, the Restaurant Top 50 compilation from Wines & Spirits magazine would appear to dispel any such notions.

As it has for the last 25 years, Wines & Spirits asked restaurant wine directors and sommeliers from all over the country to identify the ten best-selling wines from their lists during the final quarter of last year, and the results may be surprising to many. Los Angeles Times wine writer, S. Irene Virbila, in fact, finds the results distressing, nothing short of “astonishing”.

It turns out that wines sales are up and the average prices paid for the fifty most popular brands are anything but cheap with only seven checking in at less than $50.00 and a good many hovering around the $100.00 mark. What is more, the list is heavily skewed to California which is responsible for 72% of top fifty names, and not-so-moribund Cabernet Sauvignon figures prominently.

While there are bound to be those who will dismiss the wines of the top-rated producers as nothing more the successfully marketed examples of innocuous, big-distributor crap, it looks to me like the consumer is speaking with a fairly loud voice. And, I cannot help but believe that it is a voice that cares little for what the au courant sommelier has to say about the latest new esoteric expression of terroir and artisanal enlightenment.

There have been changes over the years to be sure. Chardonnay is no longer the unrivaled king, and an Argentine Malbec and a couple of Greek wines have earned a place. One thing, however, may be the same. Wine & Spirits editor Joshua Greene years ago noted that “in tasting with leading sommeliers on our panels, we noticed a tension between the wines they liked themselves and the wine that were popular with their guests.” I’ve got to believe that the “tension” is still there, unless, of course, a changed and chastened group of sommeliers is now championing such popular names as Cakebread, Jordan, Duckhorn, Frank Family, Silver Oak and the like. Maybe they have just learned how to listen. They clearly seem to have learned that their patrons are willing to pay for what they like.

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No Subject
by David L Price
Posted on:4/19/2014 3:38:15 PM

BYOB!  I'm probably not popular with sommes because I almost always bring a bottle of my own reds and sometimes whites too.  Usually buy a glass or two or a half bottle of something, but why pay the high prices for restaurant wine?  Yes, I know they have wines most of us don't, but like your article says, maybe the customers like wines the sommes aren't recommending.

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