Corkage Fees and Deep Deep Snow: The Sufferings of Mountain Restaurateurs

"Too much snow," declared my friend H, who owns a restaurant at Tahoe that has a wonderful wine list. "That, and so many people bring their own wine now."

I'm fortunate to have my finger on the pulse of on-premise wine sales in this high-income resort area of California, by virtue of my weekly wine column in The Tahoe Weekly. A glass of wine, a loaf of bread, and a look at the wine list late at night when most customers have gone home: that's the dynamic that lets those risk-takers in the restaurant industry let their hair down a bit and tell you what's really going on. I don't care what bean-counting firms follow wine offtake in the bar and restaurant business, their numbers can't give you the accurate up-to-date reading that such chats allow.

So the restaurants and ski lodges are packed on snowy weekends this winter. Except if there is too much snow. Snow like the snow last weekend, and black ice, which caused that truck to jack-knife on Route 80 and crush a car and its occupants. That will keep the skiers away! And it did.

Regardless of snow ice traffic and so on, H's wine list is a wonder to behold. I've enjoyed food & wine pairings at his restaurant that are astounding. But he says he simply is not buying any wine. His cellar is full of good wines ... but so many customers bring their own these days. What's a restaurateur to do?

I understand that the economics of the business are tough. But my recommendation (which I keep to myself late at night) is this: Don't mark up your wines so much. Consumers/diners are not stupid. And now, with a two-second touch of their smartphones, they can find out what a wine sells for at retail and do the math. Corkage fees help the bottom line a bit... but that few extra dollars and moving your inventory and thus eliminating your carrying-cost ... simple B-School principles say, REDUCE YOUR PRICES.


(This is a repost from my new blog, www.mountainhighwines.blogspot.comThere, you'll have an ongoing look at the Sierra Foothills... or, more properly, the Sierra-and-Its-Foothills ... wine scene)

My Rant About Alcohol-Level Labeling Issues

Well, goodness bless Jon Bonne for opening this topic again.  I couldn't resist making a comment on his great blogpost ( and here goes:

"Absolutely, alcohol percentages should be prominently printed on wine labels, and in a type size that does NOT require a magnifying glass to read and a type color that does NOT fade into the label color, requiring a laser flashlight to find. Consumers have a right to know this information and to find it quickly and visibly.

I write a wine column for The Tahoe Weekly, at , and it is pet peeve of mine that I often have to call wineries to get this information ... which I include on every wine I note in my column.

In my opinion, if you want to call down the ire of MADD and other organizations... then keep your alcohol percentage information hidden, let your guests drive home after a few glasses of a high-alcohol wine, and create a nightmare for all responsible wineries, winemakers, restauranteurs and dinner hosts. WAKE UP!"

Malbec Release: Bodega Del Sur does it Right

There is a lot of buzz about Malbec, and that's all good. It gets even better when a progessive small winery like Bodega Del Sur, Murphys, CA (Calaveras AVA), produces a nicely balanced wine and a lot of hoopla to introduce it.

The '08 Malbec created by winemaker Chuck Hovey uses grapes sourced from the new Alta Mesa appellation in the Silvaspoon Vineyards. It's fruity, smooth, and pairs wonderfully with traditional Argentine BBQ.

Bodega Del Sur owners Victor and Evelyn Reyes-Umana chose to debut their Malbec at Villa del Sol restaurant in South San Francisco. A great idea, since the restaurant brought out platters of BBQ beef, pork and poultry done in the authentic style... accompanied by live music, a Bondolon musician and Victor himself crooning a few Latin American ballads.

At the event, Evelyn presented the new 2008 vintage of Carmesi , a red blend with a purpose. Portions of the sale of each bottle of Carmesi are donated to charitable organizations that assist needy women and their children. This year, The Resource Connection of San Andreas has been chosen to receive the donations from the sale of the 2008 vintage of the Carmesi.

About the winery (a nice backstory in their own words): Bodega del Sur is the culmination of a dream of Evelyn and Victor Reyes-Umana. Victor began his love affair with wine in his native El Salvador. Moving to California and later in life, traveling around the world, solidified his appreciation for wines and increased his curiosity for the various wine styles of the different regions of the world.

While visiting some friends in Chile in 1993, Victor and Evelyn had the great opportunity to visit many of the small, family owned wineries, and it was then that Victor uttered the fateful words, "This is what I would like to do when I retire". His remark took Evelyn completely by surprise. She thought it was a pipe dream, and mentioned something about him being out of his mind. After all, Victor was already a successful electrical engineer in California's Silicon Valley, and Evelyn was busy raising their sons, Victor Manuel and Luis Edgardo, with a full-time job teaching Spanish at Saint Matthew's Catholic School in San Mateo, CA. What did they know about making wine? But this "nutty" idea started to flourish.

During their visits to Spain and France in 2004 and 2005, they visited various wine regions, spending some significant time in La Mancha, where wines and dreams come together. They spent time talking to the winemakers and gathering information on the production of fine, elite wines. Then, in the spring of 2007, the opportunity arose to purchase a winery in Calaveras County, and they decided to take the plunge. This was the perfect location. Not only was it near their summer home in Arnold, but also, Victor realized the grape growing region of the Sierra foothills mimicked those of Chile, Argentina and Spain, among others. Through the years, Victor had learned to appreciate and admire the wines the region produced, and particularly liked the consistent quality and style of the wine produced by Chuck Hovey for another local winery. It was through Chuck's wines that Victor learned that great wines could be made from Spanish varietals grown locally. It was an incredible thrill for Victor and Evelyn to be able to team up with Chuck, to produce the Bodega del Sur wines. Truly a dream coming true.

On a personal note, I was delighted to help Evelyn and Victor celebrate their new vintages. They are among some of the most interesting winery people I've met while doing research for my forthcoming book, Mountain High Wines: The Sierra and Its Foothills. Drop me a note if you'd like to be on the book party release list! (barbara at winebizpr dot com)

Exceptional Wine at Manzanita Restaurant-Ritz Carlton Northstar

Just simply walking into the lobby at the Ritz-Carlton at Northstar is a delight, and that feeling of luxe starts from that moment. It’s fitting that Traci des Jardins, the celebrated San Francisco master of French-California, would be comfortable lending her reputation and skills to Manzanita, the exceptional restaurant with an exceptional wine list at the Ritz.

The Manzanita restaurant at the Ritz–Carlton is known for its culinary delights, but don’t neglect the wine list when you go there. It is extensive. Many of the wines also are part of the restaurant’s half-glass program, which started as part of the “flights” or carefully-chosen tastes of three or four wines, generally served at the bar with light appetizers. Enjoying three or four different wines in the course of a meal is a pleasure, and the half-glass program will not break your budget.

A nice way to start is with the Roederer Estate Anderson Valley Brut. It’s a nice minerally sparkler, with tart apple and lemon aromas, and flavors of vanilla, citrus and anise. It’s a great champagne experience, as this winery is the California outpost of Champagne Louis Roederer, and it benefits from that centuries-old tradition of fine winemaking 12% alcohol. $12 glass or $6 half-glass.

The Domaine Laporte Sauvignon Blanc Le Bouquet is a Loire lover’s delight, full of bright and vibrant fresh fruit. 12.% alcohol, $10 glass or $5 half-glass. It paired perfectly with the Agnolotti pasta with ricotta and corn filling in a chicken broth base.

The duck confit, a classic that Manzanita prepares several different ways, is a great pairing with pinot noir. The 2008 Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast is a blend of grapes from Monterey, San Luis Obispo, San Benito, and Santa Clara counties. Slightly herbaceous, with flavors of cherries, strawberry, blackberry, cassis, a bit of orange and a hint of black pepper. Wine Enthusiast gave it 91 points. It’s easy to find in stores (in case you want to fix duck confit or try other pairings at home), and is smooth and delightful. 14.4% alcohol, $12 glass, $6 half-glass.

A slightly lighter-in-style pinot also paired well with duck: Freeman Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast. You’ll experience spicy, slow-ripening Pinot Noir aromas, with hints of violets and roses. A nice acidity and firm tannins differentiate this from Russian River Valley pinot. 14.1% alcohol, $16 glass, $8 half-glass.

Braised shortribs call for good hearty red wines. The Jules Melange red blend from Barrelhead Wine Company, Napa, was created by winemakers Julianna and Chris Corley. It brings together Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah in a slightly offbeat way that results in a juiciness with flavors of black berry and black cherry, and a touch of white pepper. Nicely balanced, and silky tannins add to its great structure. 14.2% alcohol, $16 glass. We also tasted 2007 Mauritson’s Rockpile Zinfandel "Rockpile Ridge", a big bold zin with great richness, balance and structure. 15.5.% alcohol. $19 glass, $8 half-glass.

Just thinking about the dessert list adds inches to the waistline, but do indulge. There are plenty of dessert wines to choose from too. I am a pushover for Moscato, and the Moscato d’Asti Saracco from Piedmont just wowed me with its honeysuckle and jasmine essence. For those who love fig newtons, be sure you try the Domaine du Mas Blanc Banyuls Rimage 2006, made from Grenache grapes. Yum. 17% alcohol.

Let wine director Jessica Norris and sommelier Gail Oversteg guide you in your wine selections. They do a fine job!

Manzanita is at 13031 Ritz-Carlton Highlands Court, mid-mountain in Northstar, Truckee, CA 96161. Absolutely call for reservations 530.562.3050 or book on Open Table.

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© 2011 Barbara Keck

For more information on dining and the wide range of activities around Lake Tahoe, see the online version of
The Tahoe Weekly. This article appeared in my column "It's Grape" in March 2011.

Book in Process: "Mountain High Wines: The Sierra and Its Foothills".