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Bordeaux’s Catch-22 in American Restaurants

Posted: Oct 13, 2006 11:00am ET

Why isn’t there much Bordeaux on wine lists in America?

Bordeaux wine merchant Pierre Antoine Casteja asked the question when we were having dinner with another Bordeaux négociant, Pierre Lawton, and New York wine merchant Jeff Zacharia and their wives.

Casteja looked a little perplexed. The Manhattan restaurant we were in, Craft, had a wine list full of bottles from all over the world. But Bordeaux was barely represented. “Why?” asked Casteja.

Craft’s sommelier, Andrew Fortgang, gave a thorough explanation, but the bottom line was that Bordeaux doesn’t sell very easily at his restaurant. Most of his customers don’t want it.

He said that the average price for a bottle of wine at Craft was about $85. Top-notch Bordeaux is much more expensive than that, and his customers won’t buy lesser wines at that price point.

“If [Bordeaux] is not expensive enough, then they don’t think that it is good quality, and if it is too expensive, they can’t afford it,” he said.

Do you understand? Fortgang says that he has a few customers who are willing to drop anywhere between $200 and $700 on a bottle of second-growth, or the occasional first-growth. But few trust less expensive wines from Bordeaux on his list enough to order them.

Casteja and Lawton were shaking their heads in disappointment. “Bordeaux has so much more to do in the way of promotion,” said Casteja.

I agree. And if this catch-22 is prevalent in other American restaurants, it’s a real shame, because there are so many good wines from Bordeaux available at reasonable prices now, especially from the string of very good to outstanding vintages since 2000.

Alan Vinci
springfield, n.j. —  October 13, 2006 1:02pm ET
James, Just wondering if other regions of France were represented in Craft, and if diners were interested in those? I do tend to agree with Fortgang's point in that I feel your average diner may have the perception that Bordeaux wines are very expensive, and anything less would be compromising the quality. I also feel that many diners have not had much experiences with Bordeaux wines to even judge whether they even like them or not, so when unsure stay close to home and drink California. Many of my friends who are developing an interest in wine tend to lean towards Cali wines more than French wines, and are much more inclined to order Cabs than Bordeaux's. I find it a shame because there are so many high quality bordeaux's out there just waiting to be sampled, especially in recent years.
Glenn S Lucash
October 13, 2006 2:25pm ET
Tell your "buddies" to have the growers in France price their wine more realistically and then, MAYBE, they will see increased sales in NYC restaurants. I dine in NYC at least once a week at first tier and second tier restaurants and I'm not on any expense account. A decent appertizer, a steak/fish and a side for two will cost about $ 150.-175. plus tip without any beverage. Total about $ 200.00. If you now add a bottle of bordeaux, that costs at retail $ 70.00 and that bottle is now marked up by the house to +/- $ 200.00, then dinner with tip runs $ 425.-450. That's way over the top on a regular basis. I'm just as happy with a Cali Zin for $ 80.00 or a Flowers Pinot Noir and I can enjoy my dinner without having to submit papers for refinancing. If I can, I always prefer to pay a corkage fee and bring my own.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  October 13, 2006 2:27pm ET
Like the dueling wine lists, my personal preference at a restaurant is definitely Cali cabs which are more approachable at a younger age. Considering when you're out eating a 40-80$ bottle range tends to be 1-4 year old wines, the fruit forward freshness of cali cabs, I feel are more enjoyable (on the avg in NY). If it were a special occasion and we were to order a bottle from older vintages (10+) I would definitely tend more towards the bordeauxs or CDPs. When it comes to aging I think the french still have it the best, but up front I prefer the cali cabs.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  October 13, 2006 2:40pm ET
I think it has more to do with politics. Some of us wine drinkers are anti-France due to there failure to support the US and UK in our efforts to fight terrorism. I also think that French wines are hard to decifer for the average wine drinker and they should try to modernize them (add English to the label and tell us what the hell is in the bottle). Just my two cents. I love inexpensive bordeaux and think that many of them in the $20-$30 range put our Cali Cabs in the same range to shame.
James Suckling
 —  October 13, 2006 2:46pm ET
Hey Glenn. Don't shoot the messenger! I hear you and I have the same problem....Many Bordeaux are too expensive but many aren't...
Guus Hateboer
Netherlands —  October 13, 2006 4:05pm ET
Jason, I can hardly get my hands on (very) good Californian pinot and cab here in Holland, but it really has nothing to do with the fact that a majority of the Dutch are against the way the Bush administration is now fighting their war on terrorism. Besides that, we almost all of us speak English here, but the bottles (and lables) are just not for sale here (and mostly absent from wine lists in restaurants), purely because, I guess, the market for US wine is in the US, not in Europe. To some extent, it may work the same way with European wine in the US. Besides that, UK wine lists are loaded with Bordeaux wines.
Glenn S Lucash
October 13, 2006 4:52pm ET
Hey James...If I can't shoot you, who should I shoot? Tom Colichio??? I would if I could ever find him at one of his restaurants! I think he's too busy opening more new places and drinking a way too young Shafer Hillside Select on Top Chef. Anyway, I've been to Craft a couple of times with their "wine wall" and must say that I'm not crazy about his food or all the choices one has to make. Their wine list if I recall is well balanced though. Next time you're in Las Vegas, go to Delmonico's in the Venetian. Kevin Vogt, their Master Sommelier, really knows how to build a wine program and match food with wine.
Mark Mccullough
GA —  October 13, 2006 4:59pm ET
Resturants typically sell young wine and IMO Bordeaux is not as friendly as other wines when it is young. At home you can decant longer or open something else. At a restaurant, after paying the markup price, you will likely tough it out, even if not as good as expected, detracting from your dining experience. Other wines are more reliable when young so why bother?
James Suckling
 —  October 13, 2006 5:06pm ET
Glenn. Kevin is a "buddy" of mine, for real. I have hung out with him off duty as well. He is one of the best sommeliers I know! And a good guy.
Neil Koffler
New York, NY —  October 13, 2006 5:07pm ET

"Bordeaux has so much more to do in the way of promotion," said Casteja.

That's the quote of the evening. In addition, many people believe that Bordeaux needed to be well aged to be enjoyable. Somehow, the quality of the earlier drinking, well priced offerings needs to be communicated to the diners. Most restaurants don't want to do this on their on.
James Suckling
 —  October 13, 2006 5:09pm ET
Mark: This is a really interesting point. But some of the lesser wines such as petit chateau or crus bourgeois can be drunk much earlier. And don't need decanting. Or the 2001s are drinking well as well as the 1999s. I had a 1999 Margaux the other day and it was delicious to drink.
Mark Mccullough
GA —  October 13, 2006 6:57pm ET
James, a typical U.S. restaurant with a limited list (under 75 reds) has mainly 2001-2003 Bordeaux right now. Only the more extensive lists seem to be carrying pre-2001. Is there a reason why U.S. wine lists on average carry later vintages of French & Italian wines than an average European restuarant?
Glenn S Lucash
October 13, 2006 7:55pm ET
Right on James...Kevin is a great guy. I have his business card in my wallet and visit him at least once every trip to LV. He has some hidden gems on his wine list that are truly sold at half price compared to other establishments. He prices them upon purchase and never changes that price until sold out. Next time in SF, have Harvey take you to Michael Mina. Rajat Parr, their sommelier, is truly outstanding. He told me he was taking the last part of his "masters" test this fall. He also will make a great master sommelier like Kevin.
James Suckling
 —  October 13, 2006 9:11pm ET
Mark. The main reason that many American restaurants do not carry older vintages is that their wine distributors do not as well, or the restaurants don't want to carry expensive stock. That's my understanding....
Alan Hunter
Australia —  October 14, 2006 1:26am ET
Bordeaux in a restaurant is a complicated sell. As mentioned, so much focus is placed on the top wines; infact the impression most people get from reading tasting notes, or critic's opinions on bordeaux is nothing comes close to stacking upto a top 1st growth or big name house; Chateau Margaux or a Mouton etc. The next thing, so much focus is placed on *how long* these top wines need to be stored for. As a restaurnat in Australia you can hardly buy a reasonable selection of 5yr old bordeaux, let alone 20,30,40+.

So when a customer looks at a bordeaux on a list, it's either the perfect year at an unrealisticly high price OR a nameless brand of a recently current vintage, that in the consumer mind is way too young and could never compare to a 1st growth.

Until recently our list never featured bordeaux, I've tried an experiement with 5 second label wines, 4 from 2000 vintage, which i believe are kind to new world palates and so far in 8 months i've sold 1 bottle. I on the other hand; have been enjoying them at home!
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 14, 2006 1:26am ET
I have about 15 Bordeaux on our list. I would love to have more. I try to keep up w/it by reading WS, but also the UK mags Decanter & World of Fine Wine. Problems: lack of tasting opportunities and only current vintages from the distributors(boss's orders to only use the major distributors). Lack of cellar space to "lay down" vintages. I've been invited to so many CA tastings (4 this wk, even high-end stuff) but almost never get offered a taste of even non-classed btls of Bordeaux. Burgundy is even worse for regular restaurants that don't have $$$$$ budgets. I hate that my list is weak in these areas but the guests seem to just accept it and move on to CA. Chili, Argentina, AU all come to town w/ tastings but almost never FR.
Robert Mathews
October 14, 2006 2:25am ET
I agree with many points made so far, but the most important one is that there are many great BDX out there that can hit wine lists for under $100 (many under $50) and are drinking well before the normal time that most are willing to consider for Bordeaux. I think it's mostly a misconception brought on the by the long-lived, higher priced wines that are solely the focal point of the media. Perhaps if the WS's and other publications can bring these other wines a little more into focus...
Fred Daner
Tampa, Florida —  October 14, 2006 5:56am ET
James- how about the next blog is some recomendations on reasonable 2nd growths that are widely available in the states. May spur some new fans.
Katy Law
NY —  October 14, 2006 10:27am ET
Fred, for what it is worth, recently I have been buying and drinking lots of ¿other¿ growths from 2000-2003 as I have found them to be of a better value than the Calif. offerings I have received. Some that can be easily found, and are drinking well now, for around $30 retail and $75 restaurant are: Alter Ego de Palmer; Talbot, La Grave a Pomerol; Les Fiefs de Lagrange; Gloria; and Branaire-Ducru.
Stacy Johnson
Canada —  October 14, 2006 3:35pm ET
Jason...politics and Bordeaux aside, one of the reasons some people drink wine is to develop an appreciation for other countries around the world...if that means having to decipher a French label (or Italian, Chilean, Spainish, or the mother of all labels, German), then that only adds to the appreciation of the wine and it's terroir. Supporting your troups, and ours...
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  October 16, 2006 12:28am ET
For the record I'm one of those people who think that the French need to promote their wines but still keep their labels the same. Just because you can read the label doesn't mean you appreciate what's in the bottle. I don't dine out enough to appreciate restaurant wine lists but the last time I was in Las Vegas the steak house where we ate had no French wine on the list period...go figure.
Serry Osmena
Los Angeles, CA —  October 16, 2006 9:43am ET
James,Tell me more about the Ducatis, do you collect? Where else do you like to ride in Italy? I know several great producers in Italy who love to ride as well.
James Suckling
 —  October 16, 2006 10:08am ET
I ride a 900 Monster but I mostly use a 1100 BMW S. The best ride I had was in Sardinia. But on a normal basis, I like to ride to Montalcino.
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  October 16, 2006 1:46pm ET
I went to dinner a couple months ago in DC with some people from work. When we sat down, I was handed the wine list to make a selection. I was the wrong person for the job since I drink French wine almost exclusively. I was faced with a list that didn't contain ONE French wine. Likewise, there is a restaurant here in CHicago tha I like very much. Its almost exactly what I like to see in restaurants. It has great food, a casual nature, good service, a friendly staff that remembers returning customers (much like a bistro), and a DECENT wine list. But the list has NO French wines. Wine Spectator always gives this restaurant an award but its devoid of any French wines. The problem does exist and for all the reasons mentioned above. But I will say this, selecting a CA wine doesn't protect you from any of the issues already mentioned (too young, too expensive, not enough quality/price ratio). You can, and probably will, run into the same issues with many of the CA wines. What's worse, is that the moderately priced wines that everyone gravitates to on the lists are probably poor examples. Just read James Laube's article this month about the sector of the wine market CA is NOT excelling in at the moment. Yep, those are probably the ones on the wine list at "reasonable" prices. So while we debate language, politics, and perception, we tolerate lesser wines. Thankfully I can cook. Good food and wine always tastes better at home anyway. Dan J.
James Suckling
 —  October 16, 2006 2:11pm ET
I am with you on this. I often feel the same way in restaurants in the states. That's why I cooked a nice meal for my mother last night rather than try another restaurant in Palm Desert....
Anthony Clapcich
October 16, 2006 6:14pm ET
Dan and James-- Amen to cooking at home and drinking what you want! I've been cooking for years at a much higher level than most of the drek that I get a restaurant-- and I don't charge myself a corkage fee! I appreciate all the answers/explanations bloggers have provided, BUT, I can't stand the concept of drinking mediocre Cali's for 2-3X the mark-up. Bordeaux offers enormously satisfying bottles in the $25-40 range, and many vintages are available from '89 to '03 to the average consumer. How often do you come across decent CA from the '90s at a wine store for a reasonable price? Answer: rarely. For good or for bad, restaurants have chosen their paths, but it's not for a lack of value oriented bordeaux availability. In my book, bottles like St. Pierre, La Louviere, Giscours, Haut Batailley, Les Ormes de Pez, which can all be had for a reasonable price, will bury most of the CA bottles that you see in an average restaurant going for $70-100.
Paul Anderson
Longview, TX —  October 16, 2006 8:28pm ET
On the road and out of Texas, I went to a very good restaurant. The Concierge at the hotel I am staying at recommended a nearby hotel. I had specifically asked that they have a good wine list and he assured me that they did.

They did have a good wine list, not huge but substantial. No Bordeaux but they did have several Brunello. I hoped to have a good Bordeaux I was ready to pay for it. Instead, I ordered a Brunello that was very good and spent 1/2 of what I had expected to.

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