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California - times are changing


California’s icon wines have never cut much ice on this side of the Atlantic, and now American sommeliers, too, are increasingly finding other ways to add excitement to their lists. Larry Walker reports on the victory for balance, terroir and the little guy

Beringer, Kendall-Jackson, Robert Mondavi, Beaulieu and Château Ste. Michelle are the five wines you are most likely to find on a US wine list, according to a recent survey. From one perspective that would seem to suggest that they are ‘must have’ wines, the very icons needed to drive a successful operation. However, when this is suggested to a few key sommeliers and wine buyers across the US, most of them fall about laughing.

Not that the survey is inaccurate. Winemetrics LLC gathered data from more than 10,000 restaurants across 20 states, according to the report. However, such broadly-based surveys are really fairly meaningless in relation to what’s going on in a particular restaurant, according to sommeliers.

‘What I put on the list is a reflection of my personal tastes. That’s what my customers expect,’ is the reaction of Pamela Busch, co-owner of Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen restaurant in San Francisco. Cav, which is on the edge of the city’s gay and lesbian Castro district and the gritty Tenderloin area, attracts diners and wine freaks from all over the Bay Area, as well as out-of-towners who know their wines.

‘I would put anything on the list, including an E&J Gallo wine, if I liked it,’ she adds. ‘There may have been a time, 10 or 20 years ago, when a restaurant had to have this wine or that wine. Now, wine drinkers are more adventuresome. Especially if you have a strong wine by the glass programme, as we do, they are willing to take a chance.’

When I started talking to sommeliers and restaurant owners, that was the attitude I met more often than not. It seems you can throw all the perceived wisdom about wine lists right out the window, at least in the US.

Busch admits that if she were operating a steak house in Omaha or Oklahoma City, she might have a few Napa Cabernets on offer, but she doesn’t seem happy about the idea. Pressed to name a Californian ‘icon wine’, she thinks for a moment, takes a sip of German Riesling (her list is heavy on Riesling and Burgundy), and finally decides her choice would be Hanzell, the Sonoma producer of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. ‘That is the only California wine I feel I must have,’ she says.


The view is a little different from the east coast. William Rhodes, wine director at Carlyle Restaurant in the luxury Hotel Carlyle in New York city, says that some wines just have to be on there, whether he likes it or not. ‘Our customers expect certain wines and if you don’t have them, they don’t feel comfortable.’ According to Rhodes, one of the hot topics now is Pinot Noir from California and, to a lesser degree, Oregon. ‘We take an in-depth look at Pinot Noir. It comes in a variety of styles from the west coast, ranging from Burgundian to those that taste more like Syrah.’ He adds that he sells more Pinot Noir than anything else and that there is more awareness of California Pinot Noir than Oregon Pinot, even though Oregon has had tremendous press of late.

‘New Pinot just keeps coming out of the Central Coast. A new winery every day,’ he explains. For Rhodes, Au Bon Climat is one of the true icon Pinot Noirs on his list, which contains more than 40 US Pinots. Soter, a new Pinot Noir from Oregon, has become an instant icon, he adds. Tony Soter was the founder of Etude, a Pinot-only winery in Napa that he sold to Beringer Blass a few years ago, before heading north. ‘His wines are sold out before release,’ Rhodes says.

Rhodes diplomatically doesn’t want to advocate just one style of Pinot Noir, but he does agree that there are a lot of Pinots that have more in common with Cabernet Sauvignon than the Burgundian model. ‘I also think people are getting a little fed up with so many single-vineyard Pinots. You have wineries making several different ones and it is confusing for a lot of customers.’ He agrees, however, that the single-vineyard model echoed the Burgundian approach.

Beyond Pinot Noir, Rhodes mentions three Zinfandels that he feels he must have: Turley, Marcassin and Martinelli. ‘A lot of people use those three as benchmarks. They may be confused, thinking that the Turley Zinfandels are made by Helen Turley rather than her brother Larry, but they want to see them on the list,’ he says.

For white wines, his customers like a lush, forward style of Chardonnay – such as those from Kistler, David Ramey or Peter Michael. ‘I think with Chardonnay, the customer is looking for either name recognition or a particular style. When I have a customer who wants a Kistler Chardonnay but doesn’t want to pay the price, it gives me a chance to sell a similar Chardonnay that comes in at a lower price,’ Rhodes comments.

Letting the monster out of the closet, I put Rhodes to the test: does he have any Napa cult Cabernets on the list? ‘They are a necessary evil,’ he answers. ‘They can be very good in a high-octane way – all that fruit and oak – though who can pick up any nuances? However, for many customers, they showcase what California Cabernet is all about.’

The problem with these cult monsters though, is that they are very difficult to land. ‘You have to really battle to get something like Screaming Eagle. I was offered three bottles.’ The price? ‘$750.’ Did he take them? ‘Yes. Perhaps I’d like to turn them away, but at the same time they need to be on the list for my customers.’ He hasn’t priced them – and before he does he will check out other New York prices – but guesses it will be about $2,500. ‘And someone will walk in and pay that,’ he adds.


Debbie Zachareas has been named by Bloomberg Markets as one of the top sommeliers in the US. Known for her straightforward approach to wine, she ditched a career in clinical psychology and before she was 30 had designed the wine list for Eos, a trendy and influential San Francisco fusion restaurant in the 1980s.

A few years later, she and two partners opened Bacar, a restaurant with thousands of wines on the list, serving more than 100 by the glass. Today, she has moved on and opened the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant & Wine Bar (with food) in San Francisco’s gourmet ghetto, the Ferry building.

In keeping with her reputation, her approach falls somewhere between Busch’s take-no-prisoners attitude at Cav and Rhodes’ more traditional spin at the Carlyle. Although her wine selections do lean heavily on her personal tastes, Zachareas would have no problem putting a wine on her list if customers demanded it. ‘People kept asking me for Rombauer Chardonnay, and initially I said, “no way”. But then I thought, “Hold on, I’m here to sell wine,” and put it on the list,’ she says. Rombauer, for those of you fortunate enough not to know it, is a sweetish, oaky-style wine with an inexplicable following.

On a more positive note, Zachareas feels any list featuring California wines should have a Pinot Noir from Merry Edwards. ‘That wine really stands out for me. Duckhorn Merlot is another must-have, and Ridge Zinfandels have a lot of appeal.’ I call the cult Cabernet monster out of the closet again. But Zachareas is ready for it. ‘Harlan,’ she says. ‘A very good wine from a good piece of ground.’

Case study: Sauvignon as a palate-cleanser

At Meadowood Country Club in the heart of California’s Napa wine country, sommelier Rom Toulon has a refreshing take on a ‘must have’ wine. ‘I have a lot of good Sauvignon Blanc,’ he says. ‘Many customers have been tasting wine all day and the last thing they want is an oaky Chardonnay.’ Toulon didn’t want to pick a favourite, but indicates it would be from Napa.

Meadowood was recently named as one of the best restaurants in the US by Esquire magazine.

Case study: The anti-icon fusion restaurant

The Slanted Door Restaurant Slanted_Door_opt.jpg A table at The Slanted Door restaurant is one of the hardest tickets to get in San Francisco. This highly regarded Vietnamese-fusion restaurant with sweeping views of San Francisco Bay has become a must for serious foodies around the US.

When they finally get in, though, many are puzzled by the wine list. Sommelier Mark Ellenbogen has put together a long list of almost 100 bottles with a focus on Riesling and a few lighter reds such as Chinon, but there are less than half a dozen California wines. Surprising though that might be, there’s an unimpeachable logic behind it, as Ellenbogen insists that his selections pair best with the food.

But what happens when Mr High Roller insists on his usual buttery Chardonnay? ‘When people ask for that style we tell them what we have, rather than what we don’t have, and offer them tastes of various wines. Few people come in expecting big California wines, but there’s always the exception. If we don’t mention Riesling when giving people a taste of it we find that people are more inclined to like it. For some reason, the word Riesling seems to elicit a roll of the eyes.’

As for California Cabernet Sauvignon... ‘Forget it,’ comes the swift reply. ‘It would taste vile with the food,’ is Ellenbogen’s response.


It’s hard to get sommeliers to agree about anything so this list of wine-list friendly icon wines is strictly a work in progress, but here are the bottles chosen by some of the country’s top wine waiters.

  1. Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir (Berry Bros & Rudd, 0870 900 4300)
  2. Duckhorn Merlot (The Wine Treasury, 020 7793 9999)
  3. Hanzell Cellars Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (Vineyard Cellars, 01488 681613)
  4. Harlan Cabernet Sauvignon (Thorman Hunt & Co, 020 7735 6511)
  5. Kistler Chardonnay (The Wine Treasury, 020 7793 9999)
  6. Ridge Zinfandel (Berry Bros & Rudd, 0870 900 4300)
  7. Turley Zinfandel (Thorman Hunt & Co, 020 7735 6511)

Editorial Feature from Imbibe Magazine January/February 2008

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