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Silver Lining Edition: ‘Restaurant’ Wines
What seems like eons ago, before the pandemic, I was visited by an old friend. We had worked together at my first distribution sales job; now he’s a supplier rep. When he walked in the door, I said, ‘Quick-Mondavi Woodbridge Chard 1.5’s-number 25……?’ And he said, ‘135’, the rest of the catalog code for that item. From over 20 years ago.
Anyone who worked for that company, at that time, could probably do the same. It had a statewide monopoly on the wines of Robert Mondavi, back when Mondavi was a huge force in California wine. Woodbridge-and especially the 1.5’s-was a perennial goal brand. Orders were placed by ‘coding’ your list and calling it in to customer service. After hundreds of those, the common code numbers might as well have been tattooed on my brain.
When I took that job, I hadn’t been seeking a close relationship with jug wines. The company had a great book of California producers, and also represented some stellar import portfolios. I envisioned meeting with key retailers to taste through new vintages and consulting on cool restaurant wine lists. And I did have some fun accounts, but as a newbie, the reality was more, ‘Visit these 5 liquor stores in Brockton, and make sure you ask for the Tanqueray Gin business.’ Even at the better retail stores, there were a lot of wines I wasn’t allowed to sell, because they were on ‘restaurant reserve’.
Restaurant reserve means a wine can only be sold to restaurants or clubs, usually at the request of a producer who wants to project an image of exclusivity. If that works, the wine becomes so popular that it’s in legitimately short supply, and stores will never get their hands on it. There are some end-arounds, but some wines just don’t go to retail.
Once I crossed over to the ‘dark side’ (retail), I didn’t hesitate to use persuasion and knowledge of where the bodies were buried to get what I consider my fair share of those ‘restaurant’ wines for the store. But it was always a struggle.
Then came Covid-19. The restaurants were closed. And all of a sudden, distributors were falling all over themselves offering up ‘restaurant-only’ wines, some of them at a hefty discount. An exclusive Pinot Noir that should be $40, now $30? Yes, please! A few extra cases of a small-production Sancerre? Sure. A $100 Napa Cabernet, now $65? Don’t mind if I do!
I am unutterably sad that my restaurateur friends have been sidelined. I’m as bummed out as anyone that I can’t grab a few friends and head out for a quick bite and a great bottle. I’m hoping against hope that the re-opening proceeds smoothly, and that my favorite restaurants survive.
But until then, I’m enjoying selling their wine, the proverbial silver lining in a dark cloud. If that sounds appealing to you, too, then come on in.