Opting for the “house wine” can often feel like a cop-out: a tacit admission that one is too timid to order something more interesting. But a growing number of influential bars and restaurants are choosing to make the house plonk a talking point – collaborating on wines you won’t find anywhere else.
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The Four Horsemen in Brooklyn serves wines selected and bottled exclusively for the bar by Sébastien Châtillon, winemaker at Ad Vinum in the Languedoc. “Sébastien and I have been friends for a long time – the it’s a project born of a true relationship,” says The Four Horsemen’s wine director Justin Chearno. He describes the red blend – typically Grenache/cinsault – as “a fresh, bright, joyful wine for the table – the kind of wine our guests love”.
“Doing a private-label wine gives you that connection between restaurant and grower,” says Chearno. “Sébastien and I have been friends for a long time – it’s a wine born of a true relationship.” Chearno describes the Grenache/Cinsault blend as “a fresh, bright, joyful wine for the table”. The playful labels are designed by friends.
Superstar Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes recently released his first collection of wines in collaboration with Niepoort. “I made them, I stepped on them, I tasted them,” says Mendes. “It was a dream come true.” The biodynamic range, served at his London restaurant Lisboeta, is designed to showcase Portuguese grapes: it includes a sparkler, Tiny Bubbles, a ruby and white port, a zesty white and a smashable Baga red cheerfully dubbed Park Juice.
London restaurant Kiln sends staff to join the harvest for its house wine range, Arkestra, every year. When I speak to GM Luke Pyper, he’s just finished picking Grenache at La Petite Baigneuse in Roussillon. Another winery they work with frequently is Il Farneto in Emilia-Romagna. “Going direct to the source means we can support smaller producers,” says Pyper. “It gives staff a sense of connection – and guests a better bang for their buck.”
Ottolenghi is currently working on a collaboration with the Czech natural winemaker Krásná Hora. All being well, the wines – “a slightly skins-y white and a fun red” – will be launched in the middle of next year. “We’ve served Krásná Hora’s wines for four or five years – they are lovely people who share the same ethos as us,” says head wine buyer Pierre Malouf. “Their wines are modern but steeped in old methods and traditions.”
Goodman Restaurants – which has one of the most extensive American wine lists in London – has a house wine in the pipeline with Cali hipsters Benevolent Neglect. Santiago Lastra’s restaurant Kol serves four vibrant house wines made in partnership with Slovakian grower of the moment Slobodné. And Sager + Wilde has done private-label wines with insider names including Sybille Kuntz, Tschida and Rajat Parr. “It’s an opportunity to do something a bit more risky because in a bar like ours, you know it will sell,” says Mike Sager. “People are looking for much more of an experience these days, and it gives you stories to tell.”
These wines are different to simple “white labels” – where a restaurant buys an off-the-peg wine and slaps its own brand on the outside. They are projects with real integrity – so you can order that house wine with pride.