How do the top restaurants decide which sparkling wine to serve as a house pour? It has to reflect their image, be consistently available, and be affordable.
What better apéritif than a glass of Champagne? It sets off dinner with a decided touch of class. The only question is, which Champagne? The answer, out of the hundreds of possibilities, is of great concern to those who serve it.
“The majority of our customers don’t care what we’re pouring,” says Daniel Johnnes, the wine director for the Myriad Restaurant Group, which includes Tribeca Grill, Nobu, Montrachet and Layla in New York. “If we’re pouring it, they assume it’s good. We like to show them what we’ve selected and pour it at the table, and they nod and generally that’s it.”
Johnnes chooses different sparklers for each of the restaurants, tailored to the restaurant’s style. At Montrachet, which is the most serious in terms of wine selections, the house pour is Lenoble NV Blanc de Blancs for $12 a glass. It’s from a small producer with grand cru vineyards in the Côte des Blancs district, and is a crisper, lighter Champagne that’s most suitable as an apéritif, according to Johnnes.
“With Champagne, it’s always been brand-driven. But these days the smaller houses are getting recognized, and they’re often great value,” Johnnes says. At Tribeca Grill, where a less expensive house pour better fits the more casual atmosphere, Johnnes offers Seaview Brut, a creamy, easy-drinking sparkling wine from Australia, for $8.
The trend toward showcasing smaller, heretofore little-known Champagne houses and sparkling wines from countries other than France is growing. “You can’t sell them that easily by the bottle, but people are willing to try them by the glass,” says Thierry Bruneau, the sommelier at Patroon in Manhattan. He offers Barnaut, a nonvintage grand cru blanc de noirs Champagne from Bouzy. At $15, it livens the palate for the restaurant’s menu, which is heavy on red meat. Bruneau also pours Krug Grande Cuvée for $35, because “not everyone can buy a bottle of Krug, so they’re happy to have a glass,” he says.
The downside of selecting a small house is lack of reliable supply. For that reason, Larry Stone, the sommelier at Rubicon in San Francisco, serves Louis Roederer NV Brut Premier. A second option, at $9 instead of $12, is Pacific Echo from Mendocino, the successor to Scharffenberger. “But French Champagne has more of a following, even in California,” he says.
The by-the-glass Champagne preferred by Eric Renaud, one of the sommeliers at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, which has a mind-blowing 500,000 bottles crammed in its cellar and a wine list the size of a phone book, is Delamotte NV Brut ($11.50). Though relatively unknown, Delamotte is adjacent to prestigious Salon in the grand cru village of Le Mesnil. “We try to be exclusive and I think we’re the only ones pouring it,” Renaud says. Piper-Sonoma Brut is the budget choice at Bern’s, at $7 a glass.
At Bern’s and several other wine-oriented restaurants around the country, the lower-priced pour tends to be a crowd-pleaser that is a bit softer, sweeter and easier to drink. In general, the price range for the house Champagne (at Bern’s it’s a California sparkling wine, Schramsberg’s 1997 Blanc de Blancs) is $12 to $15 a glass. When a tête de cuvée is offered as a second option, a glass can cost up to $50.
A different sort of boutique Champagne, the private-label bottling, is also becoming increasingly popular. In France, such esteemed restaurants as Taillevent, Lucas Carton, Alain Ducasse, Paul Bocuse and Georges Blanc have long been pouring—and selling—Champagnes made by houses like Vranken, Perrier-Jouët, Lanson and Paul Goerg and labeled with the restaurants’ names.
For its first anniversary in June, Cello, a high-end seafood restaurant in New York City that specializes in Champagne and always offers four or five different bubblies by the glass, arranged for Paul Goerg (a brand owned by the La Goutte d’Or cooperative in Vertus) to make a proprietary cuvée with a light, crisp finish. Now it’s the house pour at $16 a glass. Cello is also one of but a few restaurants where Champagnes like Taittinger Comtes de Champagne and Dom Pérignon can be had by the glass (for up to $38).
After having a Champagne made for him by a small house that could not guarantee a consistent supply, Alain Ducasse turned to Marne et Champagne, the second-largest Champagne conglomerate in France. “I was overwhelmed by the quality and variety of their stock, and after working with them for almost a year we came up with a Champagne that precisely suits my taste,” he says. The result: a refined, dry and elegant Paul Drouet cuvée that’s one-third each Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.
“The point is consistency,” Ducasse says. “There are wonderful little houses, but a big house can do that best.” Drouet is the house Champagne at all of Ducasse’s restaurants, including the eponymous one he opened in Manhattan this past summer, where he charges $18 a glass. Warner LeRoy has also selected this Champagne, with the Alain Ducasse label, for his Russian Tea Room ($12.75).
Iron Horse in Sonoma County has become the primary American player on the private label scene. It started when Bradley Ogden, the chef and part owner of Lark Creek Inn in Marin County, came to Iron Horse in 1990 with the idea. “We now make special cuvées for about ten restaurants,” says Forrest Tancer, winemaker and co-owner.
“The chefs and sommeliers come to the winery, taste base wines and play with different dosages to achieve the flavor profile they like,” Tancer says. “We even send samples back and forth until it’s fine-tuned.” Tancer says it’s exciting to create these special cuvées, and the restaurants find that they sell more sparkling wine that way. Charles Palmer, the chef/owner of Aureole in New York and Las Vegas, wanted a cuvée that was creamy, complex and “Krug in style.” Iron Horse came through for him.
Seeger’s in Atlanta, One Market in San Francisco, and Commander’s Palace in New Orleans are some of the other restaurants in the United States that now have private-label sparkling wines made by Iron Horse (prices range from about $9 to $12 per flute). Originally, Iron Horse wanted to supply only one restaurant in any given city. But that has become hard to control now that high-profile restaurants have started opening branches in several markets. For example, there are now 19 Roy’s, the fusion restaurant founded by Hawaiian chef Roy Yamaguchi (another Iron Horse client), around the country, with more slated to open.
The Relais & Châteaux organization has arrangements with a handful of Champagne houses, each of which makes a special cuvée with a proprietary Relais & Châteaux label. It’s up to the restaurant or hotel to decide whether or not to stock it and to select the one it prefers from the collection made by Perrier-Jouët, Taittinger, Mumm, Moët & Chandon and Louis Roederer. Prices generally range from $12 to $16 a glass.
The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, for example, serves the Perrier-Jouët version. So does Restaurant Daniel in New York, though it’s also in the process of developing a special cuvée that will be made by Lanson, which will go for $18 a glass. Jean-Luc le Du, Daniel’s sommelier, said the restaurant would continue to pour the Relais & Châteaux cuvée as well.
Some sommeliers seek a Champagne that expresses the personality of the restaurant in a particular fashion. For example, at Cascadia in Seattle, which is a showcase for ingredients from the Pacific Northwest, sommelier Jake Kosseff looked long and hard for some Oregon and Washington sparklers. He opted for Argyle 1996 Brut from the Willamette Valley in Oregon ($11). “It’s a drier, yeastier wine from a small house, but we seem to be able to get enough of it,” he says. For $14 a glass, he also pours the 1994 Mountain Dome Brut, a Washington sparkling wine that can complement food as well as being a lovely apéritif. It’s his favorite from the region, “but it’s harder to get,” he says. For those who insist on Champagne, he has Veuve Clicquot nonvintage Yellow Label.
At Valentino in Los Angeles, owner Piero Selvaggio happily pours a Zardetto Prosecco di Valdobbiadene for $7, which he describes as “a simple glass of bubbles.” In keeping with his Italian point of view, for $10 he offers Ca’ del Bosco 1993 Blanc de Blancs Brut, which he considers to be the best spumante made in Italy. Selvaggio, wine connoisseur that he is, knows that Champagne must also be available by the glass, so he rounds out his offerings with nonvintage bruts from Piper-Heidsieck or Louis Roederer, also for $10.
It’s the rare restaurant that does not serve a Champagne by the glass. For that, there’s Danube in Manhattan, David Bouley’s restaurant that interprets Austrian cuisine in an early-20th-century setting decorated in the style of the painter Gustav Klimt. The house sparkler is Schlumberger Cuvée Klimt, from Austria ($12).
“David and I went to Vienna and visited the Schlumberger cellars,” says Walter Krajnc, Danube’s manager. “We loved the idea of the wine coming in a bottle with a label with the Klimt design.” But at the end of the day, it was the quality of the wine, which is made from Welschriesling, a Central European grape unrelated to Riesling, that sold them.
A pretty label, a special cuvée, or a well-known name only opens the door when it comes to picking a house Champagne. What counts is whether the wine suits the restaurant’s image, is available, can be poured for no more than $15, and nicely paves the way for dinner.
Florence Fabricant regularly writes about food, wine and travel for The New York Times.