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How Sommeliers Build Recession-Proof Wine Lists 

For 20 years, Tyla Nattress, wine maven and co-owner of Orchard Kitchen on Washington State’s Whidbey Island, has aspired to “make wine feel like a treat, but also a nice value.” But lately, the proposition has proved a greater challenge than ever before.

It’s much the same problem at Mister A’s in San Diego, which sells a large quantity of brut rosé Champagne. Recently, sommelier Scott Rose has struggled to keep his prices in step with a recent 20% rise in cost to him. The story is similar at Driftwood Wines and The Salty Butcher on Florida’s panhandle, where sommelier and master butcher Aubrey Craig has contended with regular increases in mid- and higher-end wines, including a reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, which recently jumped $10 wholesale.

Across the country, wine professionals are contending with rising wine prices, a response to inflation and dramatic cost increases associated with farming, winemaking, logistics and packaging. But ever-enterprising somms are shifting gears, leaning on wines from often-ignored and up-and-coming regions. Their goal? To keep prices reasonable for drinkers and create recession-proof wine lists.

But first, why is this happening?

Libby Burk, sommelier at Common Thread in Savannah, Georgia, attributes skyrocketing costs in large part to environmental factors, many of them related to climate change. Wildfires, warmer summers, too little or too much rain and late frosts in winegrowing regions can reduce crop yield, tipping the balance in the tug of war between supply and demand that characterizes the wine market.

For restaurants like Common Thread, which specializes in sustainable wine, building a list becomes even more difficult. More often now than ever before, Nattress also struggles to source quality wines for Orchard Kitchen, and she’s often forced to look far from home for appropriate bottles.

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“When I find a wine like that in the States, it’s more expensive than what I’m finding from other countries,” Nattress says. “You can still get an excellent value even with a small production, biodynamic, organically farmed wine in Spain, but finding it close to home is challenging,”

Of course, there are other factors at play, too. Increased agricultural costs, supply chain issues (like this past spring’s French workers’ strike, which Rose blames for gaps in the supply chain) and fluctuation of the dollar have all complicated the calculus of building an affordable wine list in recent years. “Glass prices have doubled and cardboard’s is rising, so the inputs to making the wine have increased substantially, which is then passed on to us,” Craig says.

How wine pros are keeping lists affordable

Despite economic challenges, there are deals to be had if you know where to look. At Ronin in Bryan, Texas, sommelier and co-owner Amanda Light takes joy in sourcing bottles from areas just outside prominent regions, which often command much lower prices.

“We have a GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) by the glass that’s grown just outside Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” Light says. “We call it Baby Châteauneuf and it’s all the bang without the buck. It gives people the opportunity to try something that typically would only be a splurge, in an affordable version.”

Light also gravitates toward Georgian wines, which often have a better QPR—aka quality price ratio—than other European offerings. “These are some of the most underrated wines in the world,” says Light. “There’s so much fun stuff coming out of the birthplace of wine. They’re making it with clay pots; I love having that on our list.”

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Craig, meanwhile, has a soft spot for Aligoté, the second most-grown white grape in Burgundy. Though it shares the same excellent terroir as the region’s most popular grape, Chardonnay, it’s often overlooked and therefore tends to be less expensive. Craig keeps the shelves at his Florida shops stocked with it and loves to talk to customers about its value. He also remains on the hunt for other unsung varietals of excellent quality.

“We recently brought in some dry Furmint from Hungary,” Craig shares. “An average Chablis drinker would be very satisfied with these wines, which come in $10 less.”

As for Burk’s answer to escalating prices of popular Pinot Noir selections? Hungarian reds. “Customers hesitate to order these wines because they don’t know them, but they offer incredible value,” she notes. “We held a Hungarian wine dinner to introduce the community to these wines and everyone loved them.”

Alternative sparklers also offer price relief. Champagne is expensive to produce, but you can find delicious French sparkling wines from outside the Champagne region that utilize Méthode Champenoise (like those from Alsace and Loire, among others), but at a much lower cost. Spanish Cava, another value-driven sparkling option Burk stocks, goes through the same fermentation process as Champagne, yet sells for much less. “I’m trying to open people’s eyes to things that are similar or made the same way. just without the costly classification and certifications,” Burk says.

Looking forward

Despite the obvious hardships they present, current economic challenges may have a silver lining: Craig points out customers seem more open to trying new wines from unfamiliar places based on the value they offer.

“The market for the top 1% wines isn’t going anywhere; those customers will still be buying despite ever-increasing prices,” he says. “But for the everyday drinker, I think we’re going to start seeing a trend toward affordable Rhône wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. I’m already starting to see a comeback in Australian wines.” He’s also noticed an uptick in interest in Argentinian Pinot Noir. “The cool climate in Patagonia produces great Pinot,” Craig notes. “I’ve seen [heightened] demand on the consumer side because it’s an exceptional value for what you’re getting.”

Burk is hopeful that upcoming harvests will translate to “more options in the face of climate change and natural disasters happening all over Europe.” She was particularly heartened after attending a recent harvest in Washington State. “I was astounded at the diversity of the terrain there. They’re planting over 80 different grape varietals that were thriving. I tasted skin-contact Gewürtzmeiner and Dolcetto Pét Nats. There were tons of Rhône blends, like a co-fermented Syrah and Viognier that tasted like Côte-Rôtie. They’re doing amazing things, without even half of their potential land planted to vines. In comparison to Rhone, Washington can definitely be more value-driven.”

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Also, despite some sommeliers’ struggles to find well-priced bottles stateside, Light believes affordable options exist—and supporting those producers is key to ensuring their survival.

“They’re out there, those small family-owned wineries, and in Texas, our latitude line is great for growing and the affordability is there,” Light says. “Similar to Georgia and Hungary, there’s much room for growth. Texas hasn’t established itself yet as a distinguished region, but it’s producing delicious, economical options that weren’t here 10 to 15 years ago.”

For Rose, finding great bottles at reasonable prices is simply a matter of always asking questions like, “What’s the next Sancerre?” and continuously tasting to find it. After all, good wine that doesn’t break the bank can come from even the most unexpected places.

“People are trying new wines from new places, just based on the value proposition they offer,” says Craig. “Once they try them, they keep coming back, because they’re delicious and affordable.”