Selling Australian Wine In A Steakhouse. Or At Least Mine. How I Chose Not To Miss The Boat On The Revolution
By Kate Webber
If I could have one wish for Australian wine, it’s that people would stop treating ‘Australian Wine’ as a single entity and start treating it as something beautiful and dynamic. We’ve moved past the 2004 heyday of $5.99 Shiraz into the world of Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon, Yarra Valley Chardonnay and Geelong Shiraz. Yet somehow people seem to lump Australian Wine into one category, even though the distance between Margaret River and the Barossa is the same as the distance between San Diego and Des Moines.
On our wine lists, Australia is treated as equally critical as any other country. Many restaurants seem content to list just a handful of Australian wines and these token wines sit, unattended and unsold. I came across one list recently that had seven pages of Champagne but no sparkling wine from Tasmania. Another had five pages of German Riesling but only one bottle of Australian wine. These were widely recognized restaurants with beautiful programs that were simply missing an entire country.
All of our guests are looking for an experience, and the goal of our wine list is to enhance their meal whether someone is spending $20 or $2,000. I believe that we could make a successful wine list entirely of wines from Australia. Considering Australia grows more varieties than almost any country in the world, has some of the oldest vines, has dynastic and historic stories, and quality and value as yet undiscovered in the United States, today is when restaurants should be latching on to Australia and what it can do for the momentum of a killer program.
I like to pour Australian wine. Lots of it. The first wine on our list is Australia’s multi-regional Taltarni Taché Brut Rosé, a floral and creamy sparkling topped off with Tasmanian Pinot Noir to deepen the palate. We list this as the only sparkling rosé by the glass, and it shines every day. The Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling is perfect with our shellfish tower. But the dark horse has been the Running With Bulls Tempranillo from the Barossa, a spicy ribbon of sexy red fruit. I unabashedly Coravin Jim Barry’s Armagh Shiraz to showcase its density, smoke and ferocity. It’s the 2009, so I’m probably doing the wine a disservice as it will last for years in the bottle (and on your palate). Within these first few pages we aim to illustrate that Australian wine is revered here. This is absolutely the truth.
At the Bancroft Chophouse, Australia represents three of our thirteen New World Chardonnays. The Giaconda Estate from Beechworth is the most expensive of all thirteen, and rightfully so—the umami and sesame flavors combined with salinity, toast and citrus peel makes it one of the most vibrant Chardonnays we carry from anywhere. When a guest sees that nearly a quarter of these Chardonnays are from Australia, the country becomes as significant as any other from the New World. The roses and cinnamon of the Pinot Noirs from the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula are wonderful discoveries, as are the Italian red varieties from Victoria and the aged Hunter Valley Semillons. Cool climate Tasmanian surprises, such as the bracing, tangy spice of Josef Chromy’s Pinot Noir and the precise, exquisite Jansz Cuveé sparkling wine have been easy sells because Tasmania’s unique style does not attempt to mimic that of anywhere else in the world. A vertical of Vasse Felix’s Heytesbury red sits between our verticals of Jordan and Harlan. About 10% of the wines we list are from Australia. The simple saturation and placement on our list has improved their standing.
Australian Wine: Quality and Value Waiting to be Discovered
The secret, though, is that these wines are incredible value. Jacob’s Creek St. Hugo Cabernet has the polished tannins that resemble a restrained, cooler site California Cabernet that would cost twice as much. Several articles have been written in the past few years comparing Australian Chardonnay to fine Burgundies. Describing the climate and style of Margaret River is a gateway for our servers to explain to guests why every one of those vintages of the Vasse Felix has beautiful acidity and tannic bone structure without paying Classified Growth prices. The opportunity for our servers to slide these wines into the slots of ‘if not that then this’ has been an excellent tool.
And there’s nothing more powerful than a fully armed server. We taste everything, from Penfolds Bin 389 to Innocent Bystander’s Pink Moscato (one of my own guilty pleasures, except I really don’t feel that guilty about it because it’s so delicious). We pair Yarra Valley Chardonnay and Barossa Valley Grenache with our menu items over and over again. Those who worry Australian wines will be too heavy to go with anything delicate or subtle find Shiraz from Victoria sleek and refined. Tables struggling between New World and Old World are very satisfied with the floral but determined Adelina Nebbiolo from the Adelaide Hills. In the end, our guests appreciate being directed and return for these wines they didn’t know existed before.
Share the Story, Sell the Wine
Sommeliers are unendingly flying to Europe to see Bordeaux, Tuscany, Spain. They return and immerse themselves in new projects, training their staff on the wines of Monterrei and the Blauburgunder of Südtirol, leaving poor Australia discarded in the corner. But it is the few and the fortunate that make it to Australia. And so, we email wineries halfway around the world and ask for stories, histories, and reasons why that wine is important to them, and why it should be important to us. If it’s important to us, it stays with us. Beyond anything, it is the story that sells these wines. Once the wine is in the glass, it sells itself. The wine just needs to get on our guests’ palates, but it is our job to pull it through from the bottle into their glass. By giving guests more options, more varieties, more listings, and more stories, we’ve launched our Australian wine program and we hope that it will continue to rise in the years to come.
Kate Webber is the Wine Director for the Webber Restaurant Group, which includes The Gibbet Hill Grill, The Scarlet Oak Tavern, The Bancroft Chophouse, and the upcoming Bancroft & Co. She has been fortunate enough to visit Barossa, Clare Valley, Tasmania, Margaret River, and Great Southern.