The House Wine Is Getting a Makeover
Wander into a trattoria, bistro, gasthäus or taberna across Europe and order a glass of red or white wine in the plainest language, and you’ll get the house wine. Reliably easy-drinking, economical and well-suited to the local fare, this wine was probably produced somewhere up the road. It doesn’t require much thought, nor will it blow your mind, but there’s romance in it all the same—as an accessible taste memory of the place you’re passing through.
In the United States, the words “house wine” come with an entirely different set of baggage. At best, the phrase historically signified a commercial-grade, private-label pour that tastes reliably like California Cab, albeit forgettable. At worst, it was code for, “What’s the cheapest wine you have?” That’s changing, however, as more sommeliers forge genuine bonds with boutique winemakers who align with their ethos, and restaurants buy into exclusive-to-them wines as a meaningful extension of their brand identities.
You May Also Like: 10 Ageworthy, Affordable Wines to Restock Your Cellar
It was always sommelier Rebecca Phillips’s goal to collaborate with like-minded, small producers on house wines when she opened her Los Angeles wine bar Vintage Wine + Eats. Not only was it feasible to source superior juice from nearby, but the very notion reflects her mantra that wine should not be “stuffy or expensive.” Since 2021 she’s tapped producers such as Esfuerzo Wines in the Central Coast, J+K Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley’s Ballard Canyon and Cavaletti Vineyards in Moorpark to produce house Pinot Grigios and Syrahs that suit her bar’s laid-back, crowd-pleasing vibes. More daringly still, she kegs most of them (bottling a portion for wine club members) and sells them on tap during happy hour—taking on seemingly every negative wine stereotype at once.
“I definitely think people have this preconceived notion that a happy hour or house wine is going to be the cheapest pour, like across the board,” she says. “Then there’s the stigma of calling them ‘wines on tap.’ But I love being able to offer an affordable, high-quality option that’s accessible. It doesn’t matter your budget, you can come in and get a reasonably priced glass of wine from vineyards that are super close.”
Of course, when taking on numerous wine stereotypes, it helps to be a pedigreed wine bar in Los Angeles instead of, say, a red sauce joint in central Kansas. In fact, proximity has been a big factor in the rise of the new house wine.
“We have so much exposure here,” agrees Ian Krupp, wine director of James Beard- and Michelin-recognized Anajak Thai in Sherman Oaks, California, which just poured the last of its first-ever run of house wine.
Looking to capitalize on customers’ skin-contact obsession with something unique yet chuggable, Krupp called on his friend Scott Sampler, who makes wine under the Scotty-Boy! label 80 miles away in Santa Barbara. Sampler showed him a tank of carbonic Riesling destined for a blend with Viognier and Chardonnay that would beautifully complement the bold flavors of chef and owner Justin Pichetrungsi’s idiosyncratic menu. Anajak promptly bought all 56 cases. Pichetrungsi, a former animator for Disney, created the label art, and the Riesling hit the menu in August of 2023. It sold out in about five months. It wasn’t exactly “cheap” at $17 per glass, but affordable enough to move quickly as a fun entrypoint to the restaurant’s more esoteric wines. Anajak has since tapped Napa’s Matthiasson Vineyard for a house Chenin Blanc that will roll out in spring, and Sampler is working on a chilled red for summer.
“It happened so organically,” Krupp says. “And from a cost standpoint, Scott’s a one-man show, making wine at a small family winery. It’s nothing like the O.G., big corporate, big importer, ‘house wine.’ Scott would just drive 10 cases down in his Prius when I needed some.”
In turn, these partnerships can support small producers in need of cash flow. San Francisco-based Flour + Water Hospitality Group first dipped its toes into private-label wine in 2016, working with Subject to Change Co. in Richmond, California, on a few successful test runs of organically farmed, everyday wines.
“We realized we can help support wineries we really care about by essentially putting up deposits in cash for a large piece of what the wine will be,” says Sam Bogue, beverage director of Flour + Water Hospitality Group. “It gives them cash flow to operate, which, in the scale of the winery we’re talking about, is incredibly valuable. In return, we get super high-quality house wine that is really helpful for our group to meet our cost of goods.”
You May Also Like: The Best American Restaurants This Year Are Wine Bars
In late 2021 the group rolled out its first vintage of house wine with Subject to Change, an aromatic orange in the style of Southern Italy called Pasta Water, which sold out in just six weeks. F+W followed with a peppery, Northern Italian-esque house red called Pasta Sauce in 2022, which is when “we started to take private label seriously,” to the tune of 500 cases of the two cuvées, Bogue says. Knowing the increasing importance of striking brand visuals, they commissioned their designers on colorful, modern label art. The relatively affordable bottles were priced at $60 in the restaurants, $27 in the group’s retail shops and at around $16 a glass.
“We want this to be one of the most profitable wines for us to sell,” Bogue says. “That is part of the goal here.”
There’s an inarguable cool factor about pouring something customers can only get at your restaurant or bar that’s borne of genuine relationship-building. This in and of itself has power.
“These days if it’s cool and exclusive enough, you can have house wine be something great that represents your spot, and that everybody can get behind,” Krupp says. With that might come different perceptions about what house or private label wine can be, though it might require tweaking the verbiage.
“We call them ‘exclusives,’” says Charlie Gaeta, director of private client sales and market cultivation at indie wine shop and bar Dedalus Wines in Vermont. “Nothing against ‘house wine.’ [But] the exclusives are really pourable examples of the relationships we have with the winemakers and the people behind these wines.”
Dedalus’s Burlington wine bar pours a handful of its seven or eight exclusive wines by the glass, ranging from $10 small-production Chianti to $20 Grand Cru blanc de blanc grower Champagne. The wines are all available by the bottle in the shops, where they’re featured on an exclusives wall. They’re occasionally slipped in with wine club pickups, too.
Gaeta says the name isn’t intended to feel exclusionary or justify higher price points. It rather denotes the “full-spectrum collaborations” that result in each exclusive, from vineyard to cellar, through importer and distributor—down to, say, the cheesemonger who made the label artwork, as was the case with the Champagne. In other words, the exclusives are microcosms for the shop’s broader ethos.
“Wine pros are storytellers at heart,” he says. “This is really at the crux of being able to tell that story, because there’s so much effort and care that goes into these wines, like everything we sell.”
Published: February 9, 2024