The April issue of Wine & Spirits magazine announced the results its 17th annual Restaurant Wine Poll, conducted in the fourth quarter of 2005.
The best-selling labels came from the following wineries (listed top to bottom): Cakebread Cellars, Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, Kendall-Jackson Vineyards, Silver Oak Wine Cellars, Jordan Vineyard & Winery, Duckhorn Vineyards, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Caymus, Santa Margherita and Rombauer Vineyards.
The survey also noted that over the past five years, Pinot Noir has been trending upward, with a huge 40 percent increase in the wine's popularity over the previous year, largely attributable to the 2004 film Sideways.
Joshua Green, Wine & Spirits' publisher and editor says, "People get introduced to wine any number of ways whether it's white Zinfandel or classic Napa Valley Cabernets. But as their palates become more sophisticated, most end up at Pinot Noir. The current popularity of the varietal shows a significant maturation of Americans' taste in wine."
So, as we often do, we wonder if New Orleans -- which often goes its own way -- reflects the wine tastes of the rest of America. We checked with several restaurateurs in the city.
"The hottest category is still Pinot Noir. Immediately after Sideways was released, it was insane how much we were selling," says NOLA sommelier John Hoff. "Although the initial craze was inspired by the film, people realized they really liked Pinot Noir and became converts.
"Oregon is the most desired area, and Santa Barbara Pinots have a big following, but Oregon has jumped in there as number one," he says. Unfortunately for Hoff and his many customers, many of the restaurant's best sellers from Oregon have sold out of the current vintage.
"We're waiting for the new vintage to arrive," he says. "We're looking for more single vineyard releases like the Ken Wright Shea Vineyard or the Mount Jefferson Cuvee at good price points. When I find wines like that, I ask for everything (the distributors) have." Other Pinots Hoff's customers like are Cristom Vineyards from Oregon's Willamette Valley, Fess Parker's Pinots from Santa Barbara and Ancien from Carneros.
Oregon's Domaine Serene is a good seller, he says. From the Sonoma Coast, Merry Edwards Pinot Noir was in such great demand that it has since sold out. In fact, one restaurateur at Napa Valley's fabulous La Toque restaurant called it "poetry in a bottle."
"People are really flocking to Pinots because the wine offers much more versatility, especially with a group at the table." Hoff says. "With guests ordering different items -- seafood, meat, whatever -- Pinot is a much better choice than Cabernet or Chardonnay because it's fruit driven and has low tannins that won't overwhelm lighter dishes like fish."
After Pinot, Hoff reports, Rhone red wines and Italian wines from Tuscany are doing well. In the white wine category, Chardonnay is still the number one seller, mostly from California's Napa Valley.
A good seller, Patz & Hall Chardonnay, from Napa, is available by the glass. "The winery has really top vineyards. They make a Napa blend," says Hoff, "very well made, a bit of oak, but balanced; fruity but not too buttery."
NOLA's house wines, Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Central Coast winemaker Jim Clendenin, are fantastic and very popular, according to Hoff.
"We're finding that a lot of our customers are looking for new and small production wines from boutique wineries while others just stick with the big, more well-known wine labels like Cakebread because they feel more comfortable with names they're familiar with," he says. "Still others don't even glance at the list; they just ask me what will go well with the food."
Bigger red wines haven't disappeared though. "We definitely sell the big California Cabs like Silver Oak and we pour Trefethen by the glass." As for Aussie and Spanish wines, Hoff says Killibinbin, an Australian Shiraz and Shiraz-Cab blend, is popular, as well as Spanish whites from Ribera del Douro, Rioja and Priorat.
"We also offer a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Fairhall Downs," he says, "but it sells by the glass more than by the bottle. Most guests like to have a glass and then move on to something with a little more body."
Merlot is falling from demand, he noted. "It doesn't sell as well as it used to," he says. "Growers are planting it in the wrong places with incorrect climates and it shows."
Hoff says that there's been a bit of Zinfandel renaissance and guests are enjoying the Monchhof Mosel Riesling.
At Clancy's, owner Brad Hollingsworth agrees that it's difficult to pair wine with food when you've got a party of four and people are ordering all over the menu.
"I think Pinot Noir goes with just about everything," he says. "With a large variety of entrees, with some more complex than others, I think it's the best food wine there is."
Hollingsworth's customers love red Burgundy with fried oysters. "They go great together, especially if it's the best bottle available at a great price," he says.
When it comes to what's hot, Hollingsworth says, "We have a pretty traditional list of about 600 selections, and it reflects what I like to buy, cellar and drink: French wines from Burgundy, Rhone and Champagne; American wines from California and Oregon; but nothing from Italy, Spain or Australia."
If these wines represent his personal tastes, then they also seem to characterize the wishes of the regulars.
"We're seeing a huge demand for Pinot Noirs," he commented. "We sell a lot of French Burgundies -- they're the hottest Pinot Noirs followed right behind by California and Oregon." California Chardonnays and Cabernets come behind that, he adds.
Many of Hollingsworth's Pinot Noir selections are from specific areas and vintages that are made in such limited batches that they're often in very short supply and quickly sell out.
California's making more and more good Pinots, he notes. Russian River is a traditional source of excellent Pinot Noir, but newer areas Sonoma Coast and Santa Rita Hills in Central Coast have also proven to be excellent. "The limestone soils in Santa Rita outside of Lompoc are very conducive to Pinot Noir and they're planting vines from better clones," Hollingsworth says.
Some of the California Pinot Noirs featured are the Carneros' Saintsbury Brown Ranch, Sonoma Coast's Merry Edwards and Flowers, Russian River's Davis-Bynum, Foley and Sanford single vineyard wines from Santa Rita.
From Oregon, "Ken Wright, when I can get it," says Hollingsworth, "and Domaine Serene." Sound familiar?
With red Burgundies, he looks for a good negociant, a wine merchant who buys grapes from vineyards and bottles wine under his or her own label, like Becky Wasserman, Michel Lafarge or Alain Burguet from Nuits St. George. Far and away the best negociant is Jadot, says Hollingsworth.
Back in the French Quarter, we talked to Joe Plaversky, Rib Room manager and wine pro at the Omni Royal Orleans.
"Being especially known for beef, the Rib Room has always had a big Cabernet and Bordeaux following," says Plaversky, "but everyone is ordering Pinot Noir now.
"Merlot is down, Zinfandel is not selling, Sangiovese and Shiraz are not doing much ... but they're not particularly food friendly," he says. "Our clientele still chooses conservatively. Eighty percent of what we sell is red wine," he notes. "We're actually selling less Pinot Grigio than in the past."
"Two wines that are selling very well are Carneros' Saintsbury Pinot Noir and Napa's Markham Cabernet," Plaversky says. "Sometimes a case of the Saintsbury Pinot Noir is drunk in a day, both by the glass and bottle."
Plaversky sees trends. "Guests are getting more wine savvy, and they don't mind spending money for a quality wine. We had a group in recently and they must have ordered 10 or 15 bottles at more than $100 each," he says.
"People are gravitating towards Oregon Pinots, however, the real bargains on our list are the red Burgundies," he says. "They're not cheap, but they're not marked up as much." When Plaversky finds a good wine, he buys a case or more, but it can disappear in a night.
"We have guests who drink nothing but red wine," he says, "sometimes I'm surprised how well it goes with seafood. But what goes really well with any food, in my opinion, is Champagne," Plaversky adds, "but we don't sell as much since the Millennium when the prices were raised."
Plaversky's Chardonnay sales are doing well, notably DeLoach, McRostie, Sonoma-Cutrer, and the excellent French white Burgundy, Louis Latour Meursault, which sells for $9 to $17 per glass depending on the pour. "We sell a lot of it," he says.
At Restaurant Anatole in the Lafayette Hotel, chef-proprietor Raymond Toups is seeing an increase in European wine sales.
"Pinot Noir is still the hottest wine of all," he says. His top seller is Vero Pinot Noir by Joseph Drouhin named for Drouhin's great granddaughter, Veronique, and made for the American palate. "We sell more of that wine than anything on the property -- at $8 per glass and $38 per bottle."
Other Pinot Noirs that are crowd favorites are from Oregon, including the Argyle Reserve and Argyle Nuthouse. Domaine Drouhin is also a hot number, according to Toups.
"The 2001 Joseph Drouhin Gevrey-Chambertin is another palate pleaser," he says, "along with Flowers from Sonoma Coast. Actually, the Flowers Chardonnay is doing well also."
Toups also sells 12-16 bottles a week of a French Chardonnay, Drouhin Pouilly Fuisse from Burgundy. Toups' seafood dishes also call for Hager Pinot Gris, which is ideal with the scallops, William Fevre Premier Cru Chablis and Trimbach Pinot Gris Gold Reserve Personelle from Alsace.
In addition to the seafood dishes offered, a selection of steak and meat dishes attracts diners to California Cabernets such as Stag's Leap, Cakebread, Camus and Chimney Rock. He's also recently added some red Bordeaux to the list because of diners' requests.
Other big reds currying favor among guests include Hess Collection Mount Cuvee Meritage, Girard Mountain Cuvee, Girard Artistry, Matanzas Creek Merlot, Penfold's Magill Estate Shiraz, the super Tuscan Sensi Mantello and Saxon Brown Fighting Brothers Zinfandel.
So, when it's all said and done, New Orleans' preferred wine styles appear to be tracking the rest of the country's, but our cuisine is still a taste unto itself.