Paul Einbund is the wine director of the Slanted Door restaurant group including Out the Door Bush Street and Westfield Centre as well as Heaven's Dog. He also runs the beverage program at Frances, and has worked at Coi and more. Look for him here every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter @pauleinbund.
When I first started waiting tables 21 years ago, the guests that asked for the house wine were speaking exclusively about the cheapest, most generic wine in either a white or red. So it was a surprise when a somm at Patina restaurant named Chris Meeske—now the owner of Mission Wine Shop in Pasadena—started bottling wines with Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat winery in Santa Barbara. These weren’t the cheapest wines on the list, but they weren’t the most expensive either. I think he started something.
House wines have continued to change. Today it's more common that a restaurant's house wine is a good wine. Rajat Parr of the Michael Mina Restaurant Group has been bottling house wines for years now, including wines from Au Bon Climat Qupe and Iron Horse wineries but also from Chartogne-Taillet in Champagne.
The idea isn't new though; rather it's old-world European. When visiting a café in the French countryside, there's often no wine list. You want white, you get white. You want red, there will be red wine in front of you. If the wine doesn’t taste good maybe you won't go back to that restaurant. But when those wines are great, they can transform a good meal into an amazing one.
Which is always my hope when I consider the house wines that I select for the restaurants I work for. Tell me what wines will work best with your food and don’t charge me a fortune to experience it: This is the kind of house wine I'm looking for. At Frances, we blend a wine to specifically pair with how the menu is going to taste for the season. When the ingredients change, so does the wine. At the Slanted Door restaurants, we bottle a wine with Ponzi winery in Oregon that is lighter and more crisp then their normal bottlings—but that’s what works great with our food. Being able to collaborate with a winemaker I admire is an incredibly satisfying feeling.
As a sommelier looking for the perfect wine, I’m just a perpetual seeker. But as a collaborator, blending different barrels to create a truly unique experience for my guests and one that works great with the food of each particular restaurant, I have the opportunity to assist in the act of creation—which might be the most satisfying moment of all.
After all, the reason we go out to eat is to have something we can’t or don’t want to make at home. House wines can take that same experience right into our glass.