Food & Drink

Napa and Sonoma bottles rise to the top of American wine lists. Again

Pouring wine at a Sonoma vineyard in 2015. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara
Pouring wine at a Sonoma vineyard in 2015. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

We love to ride a new wave, set a trend, be the vanguard. Headlines scream about the decline of last year’s fad and the rise of this year’s hot new thing. Yet if we take a broader perspective and look at something over a longer time, continuity may be more apparent. Change sometimes happens slowly, like sand shifting imperceptibly in a laid-back kaleidoscope; and only when we step back and look again do we notice that the familiar has indeed shown us something new.

Wine & Spirits magazine is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Over those three decades, the editors have asked restaurant wine directors to mine their sales data for the final quarter of the previous year to identify the 50 most popular wine brands in U.S. restaurants. The survey is a barometer of our tastes in wine as we dine out, our willingness to spend money, to experiment on unknown or unusual wines, or our hunt for value.

Last year, the survey made news when an imported brand topped the list for the first time. It was R. Lopez de Heredia from Spain’s Rioja region, a sommelier favorite known for selling traditional Old World-style wines with significant bottle age at incredibly reasonable prices. Ideal for restaurant wine lists, in other words.

With this year’s survey, published in the April issue, one might say, “Order restored.” R. Lopez de Heredia slipped to third place (still remarkable) and was eclipsed by two California brands known for cabernet sauvignon. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars of Napa Valley, and Jordan Vineyard & Winery of Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley took the top two positions.

California brands, including chardonnay specialists Kistler and Sonoma-Cutrer, continue to dominate the top 10 spots on the list, which the editors attribute to the sustained popularity of steakhouse restaurants. “Wines from the US still hold diners in thrall, making up 38.4 percent of the Most Popular bottlings,” the magazine said.

But beneath this stability, change is apparent. Sancerre, the top sauvignon blanc of France’s Loire Valley, may be challenging chardonnay for palate love from white wine drinkers. The Lucien Crochet Sancerre ranked ninth this year, its first appearance in the top 10.

And while several of the top wines topped three digits in price, this year’s survey noted that diners are increasingly demanding value. While some customers continue to splurge, about one-third of the restaurant respondents said overall sales were holding steady instead of increasing.

“We’re seeing more extremes now,” Giancarlo Paterlini, of 1760 and Acquerello restaurants in San Francisco, told the magazine. “We’re seeing a large number of guests who don’t drink at all; people who drink a glass or a cheap bottle; and people who come in and spend $500 or more. The middle ground is gone.”

And there are sub-trends. Millennials continue to be ambivalent about wine, often preferring cocktails. Among wine drinkers, new regions continue to be popular: The survey noted upticks in popularity for wines from Ontario, Mexico, Georgia (no, not our Georgia) and even Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux, as consumers search for value in the classic regions. Diners are also willing to be adventurous and try something new and unusual by the glass, without committing to a full bottle. There’s a hint to sommeliers to be willing to diversify their BTG lists.

And “natural wine,” contentious though it is , continues to rise in popularity. Several sommeliers said diners seek out the most “different,” “unusual” or “stinkiest” wines on the list.

Who knows? In another few years, those “stinky” wines might rise into the top 10.

Gordon Murchie died March 16. He was not a household name in wine, but over the past 30 years, he was a major influence on the growth of wine’s quality and popularity along the East Coast.

Murchie, 86, made wine his second career after retiring from the Foreign Service. For several years, he served as head of the Vinifera Wine Growers Association, which he later transitioned into the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association. He helped create the Congressional Wine Caucus, drawing lawmakers’ attention to issues that affect wine consumers. For more than 20 years, he served as the official wine adviser to Mount Vernon, helping organize annual wine festivals on the grounds overlooking the Potomac, emphasizing wine’s role in our nation’s early history. The Virginia Wineries Association named its lifetime achievement award in his honor.

Murchie was my friend and my mentor, sharing and stoking my excitement over Virginia and the East Coast as these regions blossomed and produced the world-class wines he always knew they could.

You may have seen him if you attended one of those Mount Vernon events or the annual Virginia wine festivals the VWGA, and later the ASWA, held each August. Gordon was the patrician father figure with wispy white hair and a very Scottish-looking mustache. I never saw him without a smile in his eye or a story on his lips. And rarely without a glass in his hand. Next time you enjoy an East Coast wine, please raise your glass in his honor.

Pretty soon, Virginia may be exporting wine to heaven, because Murchie is up there telling everyone he meets how darn good it is.

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