A major effort is now underway by two of the city's leading wholesalers to represent premium, limited production wineries of California. The result is almost certain to be wider exposure here - on restaurant wine lists and in retail shops - of the showcase wines that are challenging Europe's best in tastings on both sides of the Atlantic.
Consumer curiosity and the continuing upward spiral of French wine prices are credited with triggering the search. "By Christmas a good white Burgundy will be $25 a bottle on restaurant wine lists," said one wholesaler. Wine
"There's going to be a price gap between $10 and $20 and the French restaurants are going to have to turn to California to fill it."
Inexpensive wines from California already are poured from carafes in a majority of the local restaurants. Outsized, economy-priced "jug" bottles from producers such as Inglenook, Sebastiani and Almaden are found in a multitude of home refrigerators. But until recently there has been considerable doubt in this European-oriented market about the sales potential of California's top-of-the-wines. Who would buy names such as Chapellet, Burgess and Chateau St. Jean at prices similar to classified Medocs or Burgundies with their great reputations and traditions, merchants asked.
No longer. Last month high-ranking executives of Forman Brothers and the Milton S. Kronheim Co. visited California on separate shopping expeditions.
"We're not looking for volume wines," said Isidore Forman. "We have them. We're looking for prestige and exposure. We want to add to our image."
"I'm bullish," said Kronheim's Sam Greenblat. "I think the East is ready for California. Restaurants have been after us for a selection of limited production (boutique) wines. Where they are on sale, customers are buying them."
Forman and Kronheim are not exactly pioneers in this modern gold rush.
Two retail stores, Morris Miller and Harry's, beat them into the field by several years and have assembled selections of California wines that may be unequaled outside California itself. A small wholesale dealer, Gordon Palmateer, carried on an uphill battle to promote California prestige well before the "big guys" took the plunge. The city's third major supplier to restaurants, Beitzell, already is quietly reshaping local wine lists to reflect the growing interest in a wider price spectrum of California wines.
Not all this activity is motivated purely by cheuvinism or even the conviction that premium California wines represent good value for money.
Instead, what Isidore Forman calls "a ring-around-the-rosie situation" has developed. Consumers - many of them young and free of any preconditioned awe of French wines - are curious about California's widely publicized small wineries and willing, in limited numbers, to pay to satisfy their curiosity. More restaurant customers are ordering wine (the trade publication Impact reported recently that table wine sales in this country have doubled since 1970), so owners are retooling their wine lists in search of diversity in the keenly competitive local market. Wholesalers are responding to this interest and are also reacting to the French and German price increases.
While often willing to pour (and take an outsized profit from) California jugs as house wines, most French and continental restaurants here have been reluctant to seek out the more expensive American varietal wines. The claim was customers weren't interested. A pro-American faction argued that you couldn't expect customers to demand wines that weren't available and weren't promoted.
"People who come to a French restaurant usually ask for French wine," said Jacques Scarella, maitre d' of Le Bagatelle. "We have only a few calls for American wine, mainly people from California. But if prices are going up like they say, we are going to work on a more extensive American list. There's no question about it."
"You'll be drinking white Burgundy with a teaspoon in a few years," promised Kronheim's Greenblat," prices are going so high."
Nonetheless, many are skeptical that the upcoming experiment will be successful.
"Many of these wines are just too limited in availability," said Merle Dunn of Morris Miller. "How do you allocate 15 cases of a wine to restaurants and retail stores all over the city?"
"Restaurants demand continuity," said International's Larry Glatt. "They want to be sure they can reorder a wine before they put it on the list. But, they won't buy in quantity (in part because of the crunch caused by a lack of on-site storage space and a D.C. regulation that the entire wine stock be stored on the premises). So I think their interest will be limited to salable names with continuity at the best prices."
"We can't gobble up all the boutiques," said Isidore Forman, "and we're not going to try. Most of them can't provide much wine, so we'll have to strike a balance, do a juggling act and see who is interested in what. Maybe a wine will go into only two or three restaurants."
Greenblat said Kronheim will take a different tack.
He plans to divide the allotments from a winery almost equally between restaurants and retail stores and aim for "general" distribution. "I'll be very frank with a restaurateur," he said. "I'll tell him he can have two cases a month of Wine X. He'll have to live with that or not put it on the list." Wine lists are expensive to print and can't be changed easily, so Greenblat envisions listing some wines as "available according to supply" and having the restaurant use a blackboard or other device to show daily wine specials. He plans to have Kronheim store some wines the firm purchases for additional aging and hopes in time restaurants will list several different vintages of a favorite winery.
"I think California is ready this time," said Gordon Palmateer. "They had a chance the last time French wines went out of sight (in 1973), but they didn't have the marketing savvy or quality they have now. I'm glad these guys (Forman and Kronheim) are coming in. You gotta change an awful lot of habits and it really takes a lot of effort."
According to observers, not all the effort should be directed at local restaurants and retailers if premium domestic wines are to come of age here.
The small California wineries often are difficult to deal with. Sometimes they cannot deliver as much wine as they promise. Their habit of making several different wines creates confusion and may put off a consumer who is trying to reorder a wine that pleased him. They may insist that the merchant buy inferior wines to gain access to the vineyard's prized chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon. Most have expensive equipment and high operating costs, so to achieve a badly needed cash flow, the wines are prices high and may be released for sale before they are aged sufficiently.
"It's positive to have new names, if the quality is there," said Ben May, wine consultant for Beitzell. "These wines are very expensive and they've very tricky to market. They're great as a special, very chic, but the lack of continuity infuriates the restaurateur.
"How do you allocate them when there's only so much to go around? You can make enemies. I see nothing but potential problems. We try to lay out a good basic list keyed to quality, then come in with a special California listing."
"It's become a question of whether the high cost is a reflection of overhead or scarcity or true quality," said Central Liquor's Herman Rothstein. "In the long run the boutiques will price themselves out of the market. They are a fad. They can't compete against imports on a long-term basis."
"Small wineries can sometimes be a headache," said Gordon Palmateer. "But they are good name droppers on a list, like classified growths from France."