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On Wine

Dan Berger On Wine: Unknown wines

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On a fictitious wine list from a nonexistent restaurant you find 2014 Chateau Niedspondiavanci Chardonnay for $45.

You, a savvy, mobile phone-equipped diner, do an Internet search to find out about it: Is it worth $45? Where is it from? But the only search-engine results for the brand has nothing about wine, only a reference to a terrible 1942 joke.

This tale illustrates one of the restaurant industry’s most difficult-to-solve problems: how to offer diners wines that don’t compete directly with discount wine shops, a list that could look (and may be) overpriced

For instance, the reliable and tasty Clos du Bois Merlot is on many wine lists. With a standard markup, restaurants often list it about $30 a bottle.

But many restaurant wine managers don’t like discount wine shops routinely carrying this popular wine for less than $15. At least a dozen shops list it on their websites at less than $10.

“That makes it hard for us to have wines like that,” said one Santa Rosa restaurant wine manager. “I want to offer good wines that go with our food, but I don’t have the buying power” of large discount wine shops.

She said her wine storage space is limited and she can buy only a few cases of any wine at a time, thus paying full wholesale price and forcing her to charge much more than discount wine shops.

“They buy in volume and get better pricing” than she does, she said.

She can offer “private label” wines, but unknown brands pose problems. Consumers know nothing on which to base a buying decision. “Chateau Niedspondiavanci” may be bulk wine from Paraguay.

For that reason, many wineries now are quietly trying to solve restaurant pricing headaches by producing lines of “restaurant-only” wines that will never be seen at retail shops or offered to consumers in their tasting rooms.

One sophisticated such program was launched two years ago without fanfare by Kendall-Jackson, whose popular, widely available Vintners’ Reserve Chardonnay, with a California designation, sells for a suggested retail price $17. I have seen it on restaurant wine lists for $30 to $35.

The 2016 Jackson Estate Chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley is offered to restaurants with a suggested wine-list price of $39. It is richly flavored with aromatics of tropical fruit and barrel aging. When served slightly chilled, it works nicely with food.

Without knowing the prices of the four wines in the line, I guessed this all are less than I imagined they’d be. My guess for the Chardonnay, if available at retail: $35. And it is clearly identified as being made by a reliable producer – not the fictional Niedspondiavanci.

Similarly, a 2016 Jackson Estate Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, is a real bargain today. My first thought was that the retail price should be about $50. At that, most restaurants would charge $70 or more. The winery is offering it to restaurants to sell for $42. A bargain.

The grapes for this wine were grown in the Petaluma Gap, a newly approved and already near-legendary appellation. It is superb.

At $45, another Pinot, from Anderson Valley, also is excellent, but its alcohol (15 percent) is daunting. It is, however, impressive for the price.

Cabernet lovers will be pleased with the $54 suggested restaurant price for the 2014 Jackson Estate, Alexander Valley Cab. Comparable Cabs sell for about $50 in stores.

Several California wineries, sympathetic with the pricing pressures on wine-list managers, also are offering lines of “restaurant-only” wines. A few such wines are identical to their regular retail offerings, but carry labels to make them look like they’re not.

Others are clearly not the equal of what’s on store shelves, a fact I discovered a decade ago when I asked for a glass of a Sauvignon Blanc that I knew well and got something I wouldn’t give to an iguana.

Chief winemaker Randy Ullom heads up all of the several three-person teams that make various Jackson Estate wines. He said he draws fruit for them from the company’s 14,000 vineyard acres statewide, all of which grow in coastal California – not one acre from hot climates.

Many wholesale companies offer special deals to restaurants periodically, but such deals cannot be relied on to fill a restaurant’s regular needs.

Wine of the Week: 2017 Fleur de Mer, Côtes de Provence ($20): Delicate notes of wild cherry mingle with berries in this light, pale-pink Rosé. The entry is slightly soft, but the mid-palate and finish are quite dry, a delightfully refreshing wine that’s great for pairing with lighter foods. This wine is designated AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) and is one of the first French wines I have seen that carries this new term that replaces the ages-old Appellation Controlée (AOC) quality category. Widely available at about $16. Imported by E&J Gallo.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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"I used to like Zinfandel," Dan Berger writes. "He was an engaging, humorous fellow who often regaled us with silly jokes, had razor retorts for hecklers who disliked his brand of humor, and usually was the life of the party. Then arrogance set in..."

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