At a recent industry tasting, one of New York’s top floor sommeliers (he works at a long-standing Michelin 3-star, New York Times 4-star restaurant) suggested, “I want to open two restaurants. I’ll call one Sancerre and the other Malbec. I will make a million bucks.”
And all of us at the table laughed, but somewhere deep down inside of our adorable little sommelier hearts, we knew he was right. Sancerre (or the more generic Sauvignon Blanc), Malbec, and Pinot Noir are without fail the most requested wines at my bar, and this seems to be the general sentiment among my sommelier friends as well. None of us inherently have anything against these wines. In fact, there are probably many of us who adore them, especially the perennial sommelier darling, Pinot Noir (Burgundy, specifically).
Fashion and vogue will always exist in all issues of taste, and wine is no exception. The popularity of the fresh, high-acid Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc is definitely a product of the the backlash to the oaky, massive, low-acid California Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons that dominated the market through the 90s. Shit My Sommelier Says jokes, “California Chardonnay is Cougar Juice” because women who were in their twenties and thirties in the 1990s were given the hard sell on those wines. They were taught size and (over) complexity equals quality. That generation bought this idea. Sauvignon blanc, with the exception of some more conceptual interpretations, is nearly always tart, light to medium bodied and citrus-driven. Younger women (and women who want to be perceived as young) are breaking away from the previous generation’s drinking habits by embracing these grapes.
Red, on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag. Young Americans want to depart (I’m not going to say rebel) from their parents drinking habits, but at the same time a definite desire for red wine to be “impressive” “full” and “velvety” exists. Less expensive Burgundy and New World pinot noir are a lot of things, but they’re rarely associated with any of those aforementioned adjectives, unless it’s from the Central Coast of California and has 25% syrah in it.
This is where where Malbec comes into the picture. Argentine malbec is like California Cabernet Sauvignon, but it has a different name. People can seem young and hip, but still get exactly what they want. Structurally and aromatically Argentine malbec is very similar to California Cabernet Sauvignon, especially when it sees considerable oak aging. Sommeliers, beverage managers, and bartenders can attest to the fact that you need to have a big, soft, low-tannin wine on your menu regardless of season, or you’re going to have some unhappy customers.
So, what are the problems with any of this? None, really. Only, on 160-bottle list, where Pinot Noir, Malbec, and Sauvignon Blanc account for less than 10% of the selections, why are they probably 35% of our sales by volume?*
I propose this: can curiosity be the new vogue?
I have eaten approximately 27,400 meals in my life. For only 4,400 or so of those, I have been a legal drinker in The United States. If I live to be 72 (the current average life span of the American male), I will eat approximately 51,400 more meals in my lifetime. I figure that post-dinner, recreational drinking about balances out with the fact that most people aren’t drinking with breakfast. Why, given the beautiful diversity and range of beverage possibilities, would I want to imbibe (relatively) similarly for every meal? People are becoming more and more adventurous with their food choices these days, why can’t that be expanded to beverages as well?
I always order what I haven’t had before, because I’m worried I’m missing out on some beautiful revelation of a beverage! So, the next time you walk into a well-stocked, choice-friendly wine bar or restaurant, consider: do I want to discover something new about my palate and my taste, or do I just want to drink the same glass I ordered last time? 99% of places will pour you a taste of whatever you’re ordering by the glass. Ask for a taste if you’re really worried you might not like something! And at the very least, if you really don’t like it, a new experience is only 6 ounces away.
Also, use your servers, bartenders, and sommeliers! We are not just order-takers, drink-movers, and food runners! Theoretically (although this is all to often not true, a topic of another blog post, certainly), they take pride in their work and they’re certainly incentivized to give you the best experience possible. Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions. They’re supposed to be the experts on the product they handle. You’re paying for the expertise regardless, so don’t hesitate to use it!
In the end, your taste is your own, but with how wonderfully diverse the world of wine is (to say nothing of beer, sake, spirits, or cocktails), chances are that if you only order one or two things, or have written off entire categories of beverages based on a single experience (amari, anyone?), you’re probably missing something that you would love.
So, please, for my sanity and your own sake, take:
*This is not an actual, reportable statistic, just my guess based on working at my establishment. I would definitely add a + or – 10% margin of error.