Where fine wine rules: How restaurants at the high end build a list

A few restaurants stock as many as 30,000 bottles with some going for $10,000


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While perusing the 1,800-selection wine list at New York's Aureole restaurant, my wife nudged me at about number 785 and said, "Pssst. I'm still here."

I apologized for being so distracted, but I was completely awed by the breadth of offerings, such as 18 vintages of Domaine Leflaive and 10 from the hard-to-get Harlan Estate.

The list teems with great rarities, including a 2009 Romanee-Conti for $10,500 and a 2010 for $11,450 (which is actually something of a bargain, since those same wines sell in wine shops for more).

Aureole also lists scores of wines even connoisseurs are unlikely to seek out, including a $50 Alsatian chasselas. I asked wine director Justin Lorenz when did he last actually serve a chasselas? "As a matter of fact," he said, "just last weekend. A guest wanted to try something he'd never had before at around that price, so I recommended it."

Who wants to pay $10,000 for a bottle of burgundy? I inquire. "I'll sell four or five $300 to $500 bottles every night," said Mr. Lorenz. "Above $500, a couple of bottles per month. For wines $1,000 and up, Americans don't order many, but some of our South American and Chinese clientele do."

Many restaurants create huge "trophy" wine lists for prestige, hoping to join the 75 restaurants holding Wine Spectator's Grand Award for cellars that "generally offer 1,500 or more selections, with superior breadth and depth in many of the world's classic wine-producing regions."

One winner, Bern's Steak House in Tampa, Fla., boasts a whopping 6,800 labels and 500,000 bottles.

At the Plaza-Athenee Paris Hotel, the Michelin three-star Alain Ducasse restaurant stocks 1,000 labels and 35,000 bottles. Its sommelier Laurent Roucayrol, just crowned Best Sommelier of the Year by L'Academie Internationale de la Gastronomie, concurs that the Russians and Chinese are less concerned with the cost of a bottle.

"Most people are drinking less but better. For our business clients wine by the glass is becoming increasingly popular, with an average of two glasses per person," he says. "Sensitivity is the main concern for me. I do my best to please them by selecting a wine closest to their expectations."

Today's business meals are a far cry from the "Mad Men" days when executives downed three-martini lunches and First Growth Bordeaux. Today, drinking at a business lunch is not encouraged; staying lucid is. "I entertain clients at lunch two or three times a week," says Anthony J. Forgione, assistant vice president for Hudson Valley Bank in White Plains, N.Y., "and I'd say only about 20 percent of them order even a glass of wine at lunch."

Smaller expense accounts are also a factor. "Presently my limit for a business meal, including wine, per guest is 80 pounds ($120)," says Seema Arora, Global Head of Portfolio Trading Sales for Credit Agricole Cheuvreux International Ltd, in London. "I can certainly go over that if necessary, but I don't spend hundreds of pounds for wine at a business meal."

In such a business environment, how does a new restaurant start a wine list from scratch to meet guest expectations? "Buying trophy wines is often done just to please the ego of the restaurateur or sommelier," says Roberto Della Pietra, wine consultant for London's newly opened Tartufo in Chelsea.

"If you have a telephone and a checkbook anyone can build a huge list, and there is a thin line between being bright and being arrogant. My job is to have wines that elevate the cuisine of our chef Manuel Oliveri, with some little gems on it."

With an average wine bill of 15 pounds (about $23) at lunch and 25 pounds (about $39) at dinner, Mr. Della Pietra says, "We are testing what the customer wants. I'm not going to base the wine list on big expensive names."

New Orleans is one of the few cities where wine is still enjoyed at lunch, where people always find something to celebrate at the drop of a hat. "It's still show-off time in this city," says Ti Martin, co-proprietor of Commander's Palace, whose cellar stocks 2,500 labels. "A lot of people fly in just because we have the Grand Award, and they order some big old wines. It's an over-the-top, I'm-going-to-treat myself experience for them, and they don't skimp."

Still, restaurants like Commander's Palace must constantly come up with ways to sell more wine, especially older bottlings.

"In our slowest months, August and September, we hold our 'Grape Nuts' sale, with 150 bottles at half price, which helps us to manage our inventory. And we brought back a silly thing from the past -- the 25-cent martini (limit three per person). What happens is that it primes people to have one, then say, 'What the hell,' and they order a $20 glass of Meursault."

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