No Old Wine For You!

Posted by | Posted in Wine History | Posted on 02-01-2011

dusty old wine

Uploaded to flickr by Guttorm Flatabø

Why is it that some of the very best restaurants simply don’t have older bottles of wine? Terroirist Andrew Feldsen recently went to the famous French bistro Bouchon in Beverly Hills only to find that oldest bottle on the menu was from 2003! Feldsen complained, “They will often have fancy bottles from recent vintages, but who wants to drink 2005 Bordeaux or 2003 Northern Rhones or 2007 Napa Cabs?”

He’s right. Why is this so common? I wondered if it as simple as a matter of available controlled storage space in the restaurants and the need to turn over inventory regularly, or that customers are likely to request the wines they’ve read about recently, or even that sommeliers feel compelled to continually seek out new wines? Could something nefarious be afoot? With those questions in mind, I began asking around and got these responses.

Andrew Myers, Sommelier at CityZen Restaurant in Washington, DC described to me the challenges stocking old wine entails, “Basically, it goes like this: restaurants, importers and distributors are in the wine selling business, not the wine storing business. No one along the three-tier chain can afford to sit on bottles until they are properly aged. It just isn’t economically feasible. As such, my distributors rarely even have old bottle available. When they do, the cost is extremely prohibitive for smaller restaurants and wine programs. That said, I have a lot of older, well-aged wines on CityZen’s list as does Kathy Morgan at Citronelle. Why? We can afford them and both our restaurants have someone dedicated to the wine program exclusively. I get a lot of my old stuff on auction. To do this I have to process every bottle through the DC government, pay taxes on it and maintain proper files and documentation on these wines. Quite a long and annoying process. For the restaurants where the beverage director is also a manager, waiter or ombudsman, this scenario would be impossible.” That sounded daunting.

David Denton, Sommelier at Charlie Palmer Steak, had a slightly different perspective. He laughed ruefully about Feldsen’s experience at Bouchon and remarked, “Twenty years ago, it was almost the opposite situation. Nicer places wouldn’t even put new stuff on the list, they would let it sit and age. Now, there’s also an emphasis on white wine inventories, many of which don’t need to age as much. This is a response to the consumers who want wines that are lighter, fresher and fruitier. “

Denton continued, “We do have some old bottles, but that’s because we had a sommelier who travelled the country, sourced them from collectors and shipped them to DC. Right now, I have some old Cabs from the 70’s and Beringer from the 80’s in stock, but they aren’t selling as fast as the Scarecrow that got 100 points from Robert Parker.”

These gentlemen should know, and their explanations were perfectly logical. If we want restaurants we patronize to stock older wines, we’re going to need to start asking again and again in order for Sommeliers to take notice. So, Andrew, why don’t you write the Sommelier at Bouchon and ask him to stock older bottles? If he writes back, let us know what he says!

Readers: Do you know of any restaurants that keep older bottles in stock? Let us know about them in the comments!

Comments (4)

  1. Interesting post!

  2. I am in Houston. I have been told that it is a question of storage space. They buy so much and turn it over. It never has a chance to age on the premises and most don’t make a point to purchase older.

  3. Interesting! I never really thought much about it, but it does make sense.

  4. Don’t go to too many restaurants that have aged wines on their lists. But, check out the lists at Frasca, in Boulder, CO, and Little Nell, in Aspen, CO. They have some amazing wines across many decades.