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How and why our taste in wine at restaurants is changing

Sommelier Ryan Ibsen decants wine at Bestia in Los Angeles in 2015. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Our tastes in wine have changed over the past decade. That should be no surprise, as wine surpassed beer as our favorite tipple, rosé became a cliche (brosé, frozé, “rosé all day”), and the choices available to us have expanded, including wines from the Balkans, Turkey, Armenia and Georgia that were rarely if ever seen on U.S. shelves before. An annual survey of restaurants conducted by Wine & Spirits magazine highlights the ways our wine consumption is shifting, at least when we dine out.

In its list of the top 50 wines in U.S. restaurants, published in the April issue, Wine & Spirits crowned an imported winery in the top spot for the first time in the 29 years the magazine has conducted the survey. The winery, R. López de Heredia, appeared on the list last year for the first time, as No. 4. Vietti, from Italy, also broke into the top 10, while Greek producer Sigalas ranked 15th. The magazine asked restaurants to name their 10 best-selling wines from the last quarter of 2017, then ranked each wine by the number of times it was listed.

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R. López de Heredia, from Spain’s Rioja region, is a sommelier darling, because it ages its wines for many years before selling them at reasonably affordable prices. The sommelier influence is also apparent in the presence among the top 50 of Oregon’s Cristom (10), Eyrie Vineyards (34) and Teutonic Wine Company (42), as well as Champagne houses Krug (12) and Billecart-Salmon (45). None of those wines made the list in 2008, when the only Champagne brand represented was Veuve Clicquot (10), and the top-ranked import was Santa Margherita, the ubiquitous Italian pinot grigio (8). Neither of those made this year’s list.

To be sure, California wines remain strong with U.S. diners. Cakebread Cellars, with its popular chardonnay, took second place this year, and cabernet sauvignon stalwarts Caymus, Jordan, Duckhorn, Frank Family, Silver Oak and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars round out the top 10. Two other popular chardonnays, Sonoma-Cutrer and Rombauer, remain on the list but at lower rankings than 10 years ago. Sonoma-Cutrer occupied the top spot for several years; it’s now No. 18.

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Joshua Greene, the magazine’s editor, explains this dichotomy between somm-driven wines and California perennials by pointing to a “significant cultural shift” in restaurant trends over the past decade. In an interview, Greene pointed to the growth of omakase restaurants and the farm-to-table movement as examples where diners are willing to yield control over their meals and let chefs drive the dining experience.

“In that environment the chef is making the decisions on what he or she will offer, and you choose from a small menu, not the wide range of selections that might be on a traditional menu,” Greene says. “That has opened up the field for sommeliers. It’s not that somms know better, but they can fashion a great wine experience with all these resources available.”

Sommelier has become a profession, and certifications from the Court of Master Sommeliers, the Wine and Spirit Education Trust or other organizations add status and promotion potential. There are conventions for sommeliers to promote the latest trends, and social media helps them stay connected and share new discoveries. Greene says the somm network played a crucial role in the popularity of R. López de Heredia.

Today’s restaurants are noisier, their chairs harder and vibe edgier, all designed to turn tables and discourage long dinners, he notes. “So many restaurants now are deeply uncomfortable environments,” Greene says, noting a major exception. “Steakhouses haven’t changed, however, and that’s why you see so many California cabernet brands consistently listed. They are pulled by consumer demand, rather than pushed by the sommeliers.”

And of course, price is a factor. “California wines have become so much more expensive than they used to be,” Greene says. For example, Caymus sold for an average $100 on the 2008 list, but it’s $153 this year. Silver Oak increased from $131 to $163, while Duckhorn went from $72 to $88. By comparison, R. López de Heredia averaged $83, and Sigalas, which makes a popular assyrtiko from the island of Santorini, $69.

“If diners can embrace the unfamiliar and give themselves up to someone who can guide them, they will find some real values,” Greene says. “You pay more for the wines you know.”

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