IF YOU WANT TO ANNOY a sommelier or restaurant wine director, refer to his or her private-label offering as a “house wine.” The two words together tend to evoke a low-class image of “cheap red or white wine in a carafe,” according to Tylor Field III, divisional vice president of wine and spirits at Morton’s The Steakhouse group of restaurants.
The private-label wine that Mr. Field and I were discussing was Primal Cut, a Cabernet Sauvignon produced by Raymond Vineyards in Napa Valley specifically for Morton’s. Although it’s the restaurants’ de facto house red, “if you called it Morton’s Red it wouldn’t sell,” said Mr. Field—who, as a rule, doesn’t drink a house wine in a restaurant unless “I know who’s behind it.”
House wine dates back many decades to a time when restaurant owners didn’t enjoy the extensive vinous options of today and/or were unlikely to employ a sommelier. There were no wines by the glass, no long list of selections from faraway places. There was only the house red, the house white and maybe a rosé or sparkling, too, from some unnamed producer in some unnamed place, chosen to build up the restaurant’s bottom line, not to burnish the restaurant’s reputation.
Today’s house or private-label wines are greatly improved thanks to active participation by restaurant owners and sommeliers, many of whom have a hand in the winemaking. That’s not to say that carafe-quality options aren’t still around. I encountered one such anachronism just a few weeks ago at Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecôte in New York.
The Cuvée Le Relais de Venise house red was a wine Mr. Field would definitely steer clear of; alas, I did not. The Paris-based Le Relais de Venise chain features a house meal, too. Steak, frites and salad is literally the only dish on the menu, which made me believe, rather naively, that a restaurant with such a singular focus would be equally focused on its house wine.
That the vintage printed on the list (2014) didn’t match the year on the bottle (2012) coupled with the fact that the waitress offered a taste of the generic red Bordeaux in a tiny wine glass fit for a doll should have given me pause. But my friend Robert and I soldiered on, only to discover the wine was as bad as Mr. Field might have feared. The thin, green and weedy Bordeaux was one of the saddest wines I’d tasted in ages—so sad that Robert and I each put an ice cube in our glasses to dilute the flavor, and after a minute, added a second cube too. “It doesn’t need to be this bad,” said Robert, and of course he was right.
There’s no reason a house wine can’t be a source of both profit and pride. Well-known winemakers are willing to make a wine that’s a credit to their name as well as the restaurant’s. Take the one acclaimed winemaker Jim Clendenen, of Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara, has made for chef Joachim Splichal’s Patina Restaurant Group for almost 30 years.
Messrs. Clendenen and Splichal met in 1989 when they both were just starting out in their respective careers. Mr. Splichal asked Mr. Clendenen to make a house wine for his restaurant Patina in Los Angeles, but one that was “different and more upscale” than the house wines of that time, recalled the chef.
Mr. Clendenen, who is famous for his own Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, created Patina Chardonnay and Patina Pinot Noir, two best sellers, offered by the glass at more than 40 of Patina Restaurant Group’s restaurants in four states, including California and New York. There is also a house rosé of sorts, though it is not labeled Patina but, rather, Domaine de Cala, the name Mr. Splichal gave to the estate in Provence he bought a few years ago. The wine, made by winemaker Bruno Tringali, can be found in Mr. Splichal’s restaurants and in others as well. It’s even sold in a few retail shops in California, and at Sotheby’s Wines in New York. The 2017 Domaine de Cala Classic retails for $ 16, while the 2017 Domaine de Cala Prestige sells for $ 25 retail.
Although it’s uncommon to find restaurant house wines in stores, some chefs are sufficiently famous to attract retail interest with their private labels. The French chef Alain Ducasse, for instance, sells his eponymous house Champagne at Sherry-Lehmann in New York.
The Champagne is produced by the Reims-based Champagne company Lanson. But, according to Alexis Blondel, head sommelier of Benoit, the Ducasse restaurant in New York, Mr. Ducasse weighed in on everything from the dosage (how much sugar is added) to the blend (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). “Mr. Ducasse doesn’t just put his name on the bottle,” he said. The wine sells for $ 20 a glass and $ 115 a bottle at Benoit—an “entry level” price, said Mr. Blondel.
‘ Today’s house wines are greatly improved thanks to active participation by restaurant owners and sommeliers. ’
When I told Mr. Blondel that I bought the Champagne for $ 40 at Sherry-Lehmann, he seemed surprised by the number. “The value is much more than $ 40,” he said. I drank the Champagne very cold—as Mr. Ducasse does, Mr. Blondel informed me—and found it light-bodied and zesty, an attractive aperitif.
Restaurants aren’t the only places where you can find house wines. I know some oenophiles, including wine professionals, who buy a particular wine over and over again and call it their “house wine.” It’s usually —though not always—a wine that is reasonably priced and fairly easy to find. I can relate.
Although I taste different wines for a living and am always opening a bottle of something new, for the past few years I’ve had my own house wine: the Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso, produced by Marco de Grazia in the Etna region of Sicily. I started with the 2014 vintage and currently have half a dozen or so bottles of the 2016 wine.
The Terre Nere is not expensive—it costs about $ 18 a bottle—and it’s not fancy. But it’s reliably good. Produced from the Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes, it’s food-flexible, too, with the bright transparency of Pinot Noir and a bit more acidity and earthiness than ripe fruit character. It’s a well made, well balanced wine, the one I serve to friends if I want to fit a broad range of palates or dishes. It’s also my backup bottle at a BYO restaurant if I’m bringing other, unknown bottles. The Terre Nere Rosso is a wine of near-certain appeal.
Mr. de Grazia makes more expensive and complex, single-vineyard wines too; when I told him his basic red is my house pour, he didn’t seem surprised. In fact, he grew up with a house wine. In Florence, a city “surrounded by vineyards,” a house wine was one made by “friends or relatives who had a little farm nearby, where you and all the friends and relatives and neighbors helped in the harvest.” Mr. de Grazia fashioned his Etna Rosso, my house wine, in memory of those early days and wines that were “graceful and tasty” as well as affordable.
I may not live in a city surrounded by vineyards, but I do live in a town surrounded by wine shops, where I too can find wines that are graceful, tasty, affordable. When I describe one as my “house wine” it’s a description of honor, not shame.
Email Lettie at email@example.com.