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Bottlefork Bar & Kitchen

At Bottlefork Bar & Kitchen in Chicago, exclusive wines are a point of differentiation.

Boutique Wines

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There’s something about artisanal, small-production wines—and their storied histories—that suggests less means more.

By Kristine Hansen February 2015 Wine

Matt Ferris of the New Asian-focused Sunda in Chicago was thrilled to hang out with Ken Freeman, a renowned Pinot Noir winemaker, in Sonoma, California, recently.

While Ferris is a fan of Freeman Vineyard & Winery’s Akiko’s Cuvée Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, it’s the story that resonates. Traveling in Japan as a young American business student, Freeman met and fell in love with a woman named Akiko, now his wife.

Ferris couldn’t wait to share that story, and the one about hanging with Freeman, with his customers. “They only produce 150 cases for the whole world. The state of Illinois only receives 10 to 20 cases [each year],” says Ferris.

Boutique wines are having a moment; sought out by consumers who enjoy small-batch, artisanal productions, these wines offer restaurants exclusivity and local sourcing, as well as a wonderful story to delight guests with. While their sourcing window is short, given the small batch and rising demand, restaurateurs say they’re well worth the acquisition.

As Sunda’s assistant general manager, Ferris is continually on the lookout for artisanal, small-production wines with compelling stories. “Maybe they only make 50 or 200 cases a year,” he continues. “A lot of these wineries with small production have cool stories. They’re not necessarily out there to make money. Maybe this is their passion or hobby.”

Matt Gordon, chef and co-owner of Urban Solace, Solace and the Moonlight, and Sea & Smoke—all in San Diego—couldn’t agree more. “It’s wonderful to be able to offer something that isn’t available in grocery stores, with a great story, and intimate details about the winemaking and producer,” says Chef Gordon.

On Sunda’s wine list are 39 by-the-glass selections, representing between 20 and 25 varietals on any given night, including wines from Greece, South Africa, and New Zealand. “I like to offer a lot of variety to allow guests to try something different,” says Ferris. Another gem he’s procured is Margaux du Château Margaux. “I was lucky enough to be one of the first 20 accounts in Illinois to get a six-pack. This is coming from one of the greatest Bordeaux houses in the world.”

That he tastes blind when deciding what to carry allows him to unearth wines of tremendous value, not swayed by a producer’s name or its elevated price point. “I’d rather have someone order two bottles than one bottle. You don’t want to empty your pocket on one bottle. You need money left over for food,” says Ferris.

In addition to value, it’s that exclusivity that can nail a wine sale, too. “Everybody likes the idea of getting something others can’t have,” says Jason Ring, general manager of Bottlefork Bar & Kitchen in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

A restaurant’s location in or near wine country often leads to opportunities to carry special wines with ease. That has been the case with Josh Niernberg, executive chef and owner of Bin 707 in Grand Junction, Colorado, where uncorking local wines has dovetailed into his mission since opening in 2011. Colorado’s flourishing wine region is outside his back door. “All of the winemakers are customers at the restaurant, which makes the process smoother,” says Chef Niernberg. “From a server standpoint, it puts a face to the name.

“Our goal from day one was to source local first, Colorado second, and domestic third,” he says. To that end, three-fourths of the wine list is from Colorado, including Infinite Monkey Theoreum, one of Denver’s popular wineries, and the rest domestic.

“People come in looking for the next big thing in the wine world from Colorado. Our reputation has made us the place for super-allocated, limited-production, small-running vintages of Colorado wines.” Yet Chef Niernberg is careful to select only high-end picks, as a statement that, yes, these can stand up to Napa and various Old World wine regions.

Similarly, Pinot Noirs, considered the darling wine grape of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, is thrust into the spotlight at JORY Restaurant, inside The Allison Inn & Spa in Newberg, Oregon. It’s not difficult for sommelier Ken Bolick to fold these wines, many of which are not distributed outside the state, into his wine list. Between 100 and 180 Pinot Noirs are always on the list. Those relationships with winemakers and wine growers led Bolick to partner with Adelsheim Vineyard on an exclusive wine: the 2012 Austin Knoll Pinot Noir, set to debut in mid-2015.

However, specializing in small-production wines opens the door to a new set of problems. A customer could fall in love with a wine and soon find it’s no longer available. “Chances are good it’s only the first or second vintage we’re pouring of that wine and it may not come back, or it may change drastically if it does,” says Chef Niernberg. It also becomes necessary to rewrite the wine list constantly.

From a restaurant’s perspective, one can’t sit long on opportunities to acquire these wines, either. “Because of the limited production of the [wine], or the limited window to get the product, you’ve got to grab it when you can,” says Ring, adding that storage space is an issue at Bottlefork.

Investing in the training of restaurant staff about wine—without feeling the need to open costly bottles—helps coax customers to try these unfamiliar wines. “Some people are hesitant to try producers they are not familiar with … especially in the higher price point,” says Gordon. This is why table sales are very important. Yet there is a fine line between pushing a wine and steering the customer toward it. “You don’t want to lose the romance of the experience because you chose the wine and not them,” says Ami Lourie, manager at Cliff’s Edge in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood.

“This can be overcome by teaching and training staff on these wines. That will allow them to make informed recommendations to wow guests,” says Ferris. For Chef Niernberg, staff-wide training about wine drives home his philosophy that all employees, not just a select few, should be comfortable talking with customers about the wine list.

Using social-media channels to promote news of boutique wines is a nice complement to what happens in the restaurant. Recently Ring tweeted from Bottlefork’s Twitter account that he had procured some of Oak Knoll’s “Clone” Merlot from Napa Valley, distributed to just four Chicago accounts. Having a solid relationship with his distributor makes deals like this happen. “I call him on his cellphone and tell him I need a case. He literally puts it in the basket of a bike.”

Wanting to share this story with customers, Ring posted a photo on social media of the bicyclist pulling up to the restaurant—with the Merlot in hand. “It’s so early in the life cycle of this company, but it’s extremely well-valued right now. They can’t charge what they should,” says Ring. Although a bottle of the Merlot is $66 on his wine list, he feels it could sell for $175.

Lourie, of Cliff’s Edge, likes to view all wines as boutique. “It’s made by someone who loves their wine and the making of wine. If you can’t get across the story behind a wine on your list, you’re not selling wine. You’re just making a buck.”

I got into the food and beverage business because there’s something really romantic about someone taking a grape or an animal and turning it into an amazing piece of the times.”