Raise Your Glasses to U.S. Wines

Restaurant Wine reports that American tastes run heavily toward domestic vintages. Here's how to make the enjoyment even greater

By Thane Peterson

One of the downsides of writing about food and wine is that when I'm dining out with friends, they often ask me to choose the wine. I'm filled with trepidation by this weighty responsibility and usually spend a good 10 minutes studying the wine list, trying to find some gem hidden among the obscure, half-remembered French and Italian names.

I always figured my agonizing is pretty typical, but looking at the results of the second annual survey by Restaurant Wine magazine, most Americans will choose a familiar domestic brand rather than rack their brains, as I do. According to the survey, which was released in June, the most popular brand is Copperidge, a restaurant-only label from California wine giant E.J. Gallo. But after that, the top brands in the ranking are such familiar names as Sutter Home, Beringer Vineyards (FBRWY ), and Kendall-Jackson, which can be found in any supermarket or neighborhood liquor store.

It turns out that Americans overwhelmingly buy American when it comes to wine. The top dozen restaurant brands are all produced in the U.S., as are two-thirds of the top 100. Sales of Italian and Australian wines are soaring in restaurants, just as they are in stores, but they're still pretty far down the list. Martini & Rossi (Italian) is the best-selling foreign label, at No. 13. And sales of French wines have tanked.

The Restaurant Wine survey doesn't say which specific wines people ordered most, but some of the vino sold under the most popular labels is pretty good. I'm thinking of Kendall-Jackson syrah and chardonnay, Sutter Home sauvignon blanc, and Turning Leaf pinot noir from Gallo. If you're hoping the list can help you be more adventurous, you'll find some very interesting choices further down in the magazine's top 100 list.

Anyone who enjoys wine could probably use some pointers on how to order it and what to make of the survey, so I checked in with Ronn Wiegand, the noted wine expert who publishes Restaurant Wine out of California's Napa Valley. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:

Q: What surprised you about the survey results?

A:

The dominance of major brands in restaurants. My perspective is a little skewed toward the upscale part of the wine market, which is actually a relatively small segment. But when you think about it, only maybe 75,000 of the 250,000 restaurants licensed to sell wine have interesting wine programs. If you break it down further, only about 25,000 restaurants in this country really take wine seriously. That leaves 225,000 restaurants that are selling big brands because their customers are asking for those wines.

Q: Is there a way to use this list to one's advantage? Can some especially good wines now be frequently found at everyday restaurants?

A:

First, it's worth noting that the quality of wines generally available in U.S. restaurants is much higher today than it was even 10 years ago. It doesn't surprise me to see Folinari (No. 40) on the list, for example. They've been doing a really good job. For the size of the brand, Kendall-Jackson makes really good wines.

Q: Are there any real sleepers on the list?

A:

Well, No. 61 Antinori [from Italy] is very good. So are No. 94 Echelon [from California] and No. 91 Rancho Zabaco [made by E.J. Gallo]. Those wines would probably be priced in the $20 to $25 range in most restaurants. If I saw those wines on the list, I would certainly consider ordering them.

Q: Why are French wine sales off so much?

A:

The style of the wine is one reason. The average consumer today is attuned to what I'll call a New World style of wine: White wines that are plush, fruity, and easy to drink, and reds that are soft, with ripe, even grapey fruit. French wines aren't like that. Secondly, there's the ease of reading the label of an Australian or American wine. French wines seem complicated to a lot of people.

Q: The reaction against France's position on Iraq must be hurting French wines, too.

A:

Yes, but that happened [fairly recently]. Among the top 100 [restaurant wines], French sales were off 30% in 2002. From everything I've seen, they'll be off significantly [again] in 2003.

Q: Is it advisable to listen to the wine steward if the restaurant has one?

A:

I frequently ask for recommendations in restaurants, even though I taste 5,000 wines per year. Even at that rate, I'm only tasting about 20% of the 25,000 or so wines sold in American restaurants. [And] I find that the level of wine service in most U.S. restaurants today to be higher than it has ever been. By Thane Peterson

Q: What's the best approach?

A:

If you're just checking the restaurant out [for the first time], I would ask [the wine steward] a couple of questions first. Also, provide some information about what kinds of wine you like to drink -- maybe even name a few wines you like. Say how much you would like to spend. Those few pieces of information will tell the wine steward an awful lot about your palate.

Q: What should you do with the cork when the wine steward hands it to you?

A:

I really don't pay much attention to it. I know you're expected to play around with it and fondle it. But it's the wine that's important to me, not the cork.

Q: Should you swirl the wine around in the glass?

A:

Swirling it around concentrates the aroma, which makes the wine easier to smell, so it makes a lot of sense.

Q: How do you know if there's something wrong with the wine?

A:

It will smell like mold. But if you have any question about the wine, don't hesitate to ask the wine steward for a second opinion. It may just be a style of wine you're unfamiliar with.

Q: Won't the wine steward just tell you it's good, even if it isn't?

A:

It's rare that a restaurant will try to pass off a spoiled wine on a customer. If the customer isn't happy with the wine, whether it's "sound" or not, most restaurants will take it back -- unless, of course, it's extremely expensive.

Q: Should you always order white wine with fish and red wine with red meat?

A:

Of course not. You should drink the wine you like with what you eat. This, by the way, is where restaurateurs are supposed to be experts [so it may pay to ask for advice].

Q: Do you have any tips for spotting bargains on restaurant wine lists?

A:

Occasionally bargains [are] there by accident. [Usually] one would truly have to be like me and taste thousand of wines per year to spot them. But virtually every restaurant marks up some wines on its list less than others.

For example, Debbie Zachareas, who runs the wine program at Bacar [Restaurant and Wine Salon] in San Francisco, is a major fan of rieslings from Alsace, Germany, and Austria. So, she reduces the markup on those wines in order to introduce customers to them and encourage customers to order them. A lot of restaurants do that. So, I often ask the service personnel, "What are the best values on your list?"

Q: Isn't the restaurant often just promoting a wine it got a deal on?

A:

There's no doubt that that does happen. That's why I would ask for the names of two or three different wines.

Q: A fair number of brands on your list can be purchased only in restaurants, such as Gallo's Copperidge.

A:

Many producers are now doing restaurant-only brands. Theoretically, [the restaurant] can mark the wine up a little bit more because the public hasn't seen the prices [in stores before].

Q: Should you avoid those wines?

A:

Not necessarily. For instance, [No. 31] Sycamore Lane from Sutter Home is quite good. There are several others.

Q: How much of a premium should you expect to pay for wine in a restaurant over what you would pay in a grocery store?

A:

That depends on many factors: The location of the restaurant, the level of service. But in general, you shouldn't pay much more than double the grocery-store price. In a higher-end restaurant, you should pay at most three times the price you would see in a grocery store. But the higher the price of the wine, the lower the markup should be. For, say, a $100 bottle, most responsible restaurateurs consider double the [store] price as a fair profit.

Drinking American

The top wine brands ordered by U.S. restaurants in 2002

Rank Brand Origin Producer or Marketer
1 Copperidge USA E.J. Gallo Winery
2 Beringer Vineyards USA Beringer Blass Wine Estates (Foster's)
3 Sutter Home USA Trinchero Family Estates
4 Kendall-Jackson USA Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates
5 Franzia Winetaps USA The Wine Group
6 Burlwood USA E.J. Gallo Winery
7 Woodbridge USA Robert Mondavi Corp.
8 Inglenook USA Canandaigua Wine Co. (Constellation)
9 Fetzer Vineyards USA Brown-Forman
10 Vendange USA Canandaigua Wine Co. (Constellation)
11 Blackstone USA Pacific Wine Partners (Constellation)
12 Corbett Canyon USA The Wine Group
13 Martini & Rossi Italy Bacardi USA
14 Yellow Tail Australia W.J. Deutsch & Sons
15 Rosemount Estate Australia Southcorp Wines USA
Data: Restaurant Wine
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell