Even restaurants owned by star chefs, like Thomas Keller’s new TAK Room in Hudson Yards, strive to have lower- priced alternatives. “As the prices of certain wines are getting incredibly expensive, especially Burgundy, the wines from Beaujolais, Jura and the Loire Valley offer a great value,” says TAK Room drinks director Michel Couvreux.
Dozens of high-profile eateries maintain extensive lists of iconic wines, often several vintages deep. But as sommeliers develop their trade contacts, Rosengren says, “As the demand side is greater than the supply side, there are a lot of wines being purchased by drinks directors on the grey market from middlemen who buy from sources in Europe.”
“The difference from 10 years ago is that top sommeliers are regularly visiting European vineyards, and are developing their own relationships with winemakers,” says Will Sugerman, vice-president of importer Vintus New York.
“Everyone wants to discover the small producer making exceptional wines before the secret is out,” agrees Charles Puglia, drinks director at Le Coucou.
“Today, sommeliers and chefs work more equally as a restaurant team,” says Jenni Guizio, drinks director of the Union Square Hospitality Group. “Also, many somms have large followings on Instagram.” Thomas Pastuszak, drinks director at Daniel Humm’s NoMad, says, “People in the wine service industry no longer see it as just being a job, but as a profession, and one that commands more respect.”
As sommeliers have become more powerful and more knowledgeable, so has their clientele. “Guests are savvy and do their homework,” Lit says. “Often if I recommend a wine, they will use their phones to type it into Google,” adding than it can be annoying to be second-guessed by the internet. “Younger drinkers like to know the story behind their wines, especially if they are out of the mainstream,” Sorrentino adds.
Then there is the matter of where the dining and drinking experience meets wine economics. Many restaurants are willing to allow a customer to bring along a special bottle to dinner for a reasonable corkage fee – but it pays to check first.
Bottle mark-ups are astronomical compared to European standards, generally three to four times the amount the restaurant pays for it, although there are exceptions. Several somms say the mark-up is sometimes less for Champagne and for wines on their list that they want to promote.
Tipping in New York is often a shock to Europeans. Sommeliers say that normal tipping for good service is 18-20% of the total wine bill before taxes, as it is with food. It’s also difficult to split out tipping for food service and tipping for wine service, no matter how expensive the bottle, as charges for both the meal and wine are generally combined before the tab is presented.
A few high-end restaurants do not allow tipping, such as Guizio’s Union Square group, but the trend to abandon gratuities has largely receded. While more NY restaurants and bars are focusing on classic cocktails and craft beers, don’t believe rumours that the younger generation is drinking less wine. “I keep hearing that people are drinking less wine,” Sugerman of Vintus notes. “But that’s not anyone I know.”