Posted on | May 31, 2012
Written by | Jean K. Reilly MW
Led by restaurants on both coasts, Greek wines are earning attention.
Bucking the trend in the broader economy, but in step with America’s blossoming wine culture, wines from Greece are experiencing a dramatic upswing in the U.S. The New York trade office reports that Greek wine imports were up 5.6% in 2011, reaching value of just over $10 million. That follows a 10% increase in 2009. So, who or what pulled the trigger on this new-found popularity?
The first suspect is the sizable group of higher-end Greek restaurants that have opened in recent years, most notably in New York City; Estiatorio Milos, Molyvos and Avra are among the best-known. Not only do many of these restaurants have entirely or largely Greek wine lists, they also have well-trained staff capable of guiding diners through unknown wine territory.
However, the story is no longer restricted to their presence in Greek restaurants. Mainstream restaurants are on board as well. Pedro Goncalves, wine director of Oceana in Midtown Manhattan, says, “I’ve found out how wonderful these wines can be, they are a great match with seafood. In the ’80s and ’90s you would have to go to Greece to enjoy these wines, but now the general wine-drinking population has discovered just how awesome they are.”
Michael Madrigale, head sommelier at Boulud Sud and Bar Boulud, also in Manhattan, does a brisk business in Greek wines at his two Lincoln Center area restaurants. He notes, “People come in and say, ‘Oh, remember how beautiful Santorini was? Let’s relive those memories with a glass of that wine that was so great.’” Also, Greek wines have been getting the sympathy vote lately; some diners order a bottle because they think Greece could use the help. But for Madrigale, the reason he offers a broad range of Greek wines, is quite different. “I’ve trained the staff to recommend Santorini [a dry white wine based on the Assyrtiko grape] if they have a table with one person ordering fish and the other lamb,” he says. “Santorini is the bridge wine; it’s the red Burgundy of white wine. It always holds up, never overpowers and has great acidity. I offer six different Santorinis at Boulud Sud.” Six! “I’m kind of obsessive with it,” he admits.
And what about the off-premise—have sales there been as robust? Retailers around the country report mixed results with Greek wines. While many have noticed increased sales, most still admit that they are a hand-sell. And, of course, not every retail wine jockey is equipped—or has the time—to give the kind of hand-holding that sommeliers can engage in tableside.
Dan Marshall, owner of Du Vin Fine Wines in Alameda, CA, is a notable exception. “All of my clients are aware of quality Greek wines,” he asserts. “It’s up to us to educate the consumer; people love the wines once they have tried them. As far as I’m concerned, the consumers are way ahead of the trade on this point.” Du Vin carries 75 Greek wines, and Marshall says that Santorini is by far the biggest seller: “Without question, the wines of Santorini are on the radar. The white wine prices from Santorini are within reach of most people and the wines clearly over-deliver on quality, making them a pretty easy hand-sell.” He finds other appellations to be more challenging.
Not surprisingly, the Greek wine trend appears strongest on the two coasts. In the Midwest, Bob Calamia, a wine buyer for Binny’s Beverage Depot in Skokie, IL, finds his customers a bit less receptive—and very price-sensitive, with a soft ceiling at $10-$12 per bottle. He thinks his store is typical of suburban retailers, noting, “customers in the city tend to be far more adventurous.” Still, Calamia reports, “I have no plans to give up on the better Greek wines.”
The number of theories as to why Greek wines have come into the spotlight seems greater than the number of Americans who can pronounce Xinomavro [ksee-NO-ma-vro]. One can point to the passion of many influential buyers; a fascination with the long history of winemaking in Greece; the exceptional efforts of a new generation of winemakers; renewed attention from dedicated importers; EU-sponsored export programs; and heightened attention by the press.
Whatever the root cause, the promotion of Greek wines in the U.S. is beginning to bear enough fruit to be noticed, and the warm support of the trade bodes well for the wines moving forward. Says Madrigale, “These wines are so good, more people should be paying attention. That’s the duty of any good somm—you have to help these farmers who are doing it not for the money, but for the tradition and out of passion. They deserve a little bit of love.” And they seem to be getting it.