Jonathan Waters of Chez Panisse on Country Wines and Zin-Drinking Hipsters

Posted on Feb 6, 2014 by Joshua Greene



Jonathan Waters worked at the Savoy in London, where he waited tables in black tie and learned Russian service. Then he started at Chez Panisse in 1984 as a short shift busser, running all the supplies around the packed restaurant. In 1989, he took over the wine program and has been managing the list ever since.

Your list includes 240 bottles. Is that about the same size as it was in 1989?

The numbers have rarely changed. When I took over the list I was looking for simple wines to drink with country food. Eight years ago, I added two pages of reserve wines; they were either more expensive ($100+) or they were wines we had cellared. We had wines from the previous buyer in the cellar, more celebratory, grand wines, that needed a forum. We have DRC now; we have Coche-Dury if people want it.

How does a Cheverny from Tessier in the Loire land as the top selling wine at Chez Panisse? Has anyone ever heard of it?

That’s driven by the desire of the café crowd. It hits the perfect balance: sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, inexpensive, intriguing for the staff, a slightly natural bent to it, yet completely approachable to someone who doesn’t know much about wine and wants a glass of either sauvignon blanc or chardonnay. It’s a spot that everyone can touch. So many people with different desires found that glass an easy glass to drink, and then a second glass to drink as well. It doesn’t fill the role of a grand thing, just an easy glass of wine. I found that wine at Ten Bells [in NYC]; it took me about ten years to get it to my restaurant.

Less and less do I have to worry about people’s knowledge of things. If it’s not a word that’s hard to say, if the quality of the juice is approachable, then it’s not a problem anymore. The wine will fly. And that’s true now of Greek wines as well; if I find a Santorini I like, it will move along, with the caveat that it’s not expensive.

Or a Hungarian white, a dry furmint from Tokaj. Királyudvar is not easy to say…and yet you list among your top sellers.

I could give that wine a permanent place on the glass list and merrily sell six bottles a day…and it’s not well-known. It has a certain granular sweetness, like ginger, that people like but aren’t scared of. They are scared of sweetness in riesling. But furmint has as tangy sweetness, like a Christmas sweetness. I liked the wine. But I was surprised by how well it did—by how much I reordered.

It has nothing to do with any connection with the food—there’s no Hungarian food at Chez Panisse. The connections would be in the residual sugar of some California chards and the impression is one of a little sweetness in that wine—though I don’t think there is, in fact, any residual sugar. Eighty percent of its success is probably staff picking it. But if they poured it for a first time customer, and the customer didn’t respond, they wouldn’t push it. If they didn’t get the yum response, it wouldn’t be working.

I think that people trust what our waiters choose for them. I’m in a lucky place because Alice [Waters] has established Chez Panisse as a place where you want to come and try things, so perhaps stranger wines are easier to pass along. People have come to try things and are more receptive. My responsibility is to make sure that people are turned on appropriately, especially when it comes to the natural wines. I have worked to balance out the natural wines, to find wines that aren’t too funky, that come out balanced and stable.

You list several pinot noirs on your top selling list, including Folk Machine.

That’s from Kenny Likitprakong of Hobo wines. He makes wines that are not very expensive, but well made. This one is a cloudy, unfiltered and delicious pinot.

We see pinot as strong as ever. Cabernet has not come on strong with us. When I go out at new restaurants, meat has come roaring, and cabernet may be tied to that.

Pinot is more vigorous on my list. With a series of good vintages in California and Oregon, I’ve been able to sell pinot by the glass, good wines at $14 a glass. Five years ago, a lot were expensive, heavy and fruit-driven. Along came some colder years, some talented young winemakers, and their willingness to make less expensive pinots. It’s not that we don’t sell cabernet but cabernet doesn’t move as quickly.

What’s driving your Prosecco sales, the only sparkler among your top-selling wines?

People order sparkling more than I thought they would, and Prosecco sells twice as fast as Cava, even if it’s the same price. Maybe people think Spanish wine is less refined? But it’s not, Cava is made like Champagne. Maybe people think Cava is sweet? The Prosecco we’re selling is bone dry.

People seem to think Prosecco will be an appropriate beginning. That’s been going on a couple of years, but at a faster pace this year. I’ve stayed with one producer for a while [Le Vigne di Alice] and I am really ordering tons of this. We have been ordering 10 cases a week, and that’s not being used for cocktails or cooking, it’s pure by-the-glass sales. That was almost on par with our house zin.

Does the Cahors on your top-selling list have anything to do with the popularity of malbec?

I don’t even taste malbec from Argentina, but I like this wine [Clos Siguier] and one that Kermit [Lynch] brings in. If someone wants to have a cabernet, that’s what they get. It’s nice for me to have a slightly inkier or darker red, not really tannic, but a little more tar and smoke and richness of fruit. It’s not sweet—not cherry—but savory, that’s what I like about those wines. It’s a wine that has always pleased our guests. It’s friendlier than a Bordeaux, which at the inexpensive end can wander into dill or green bell pepper; the Cahors don’t do that. I could make a permanent by-the-glass list and that Cahors could be on it all year long. I change the list partly to make it exciting for the staff and partly for me.

Chez Panisse has had a house zin from Green & Red for years, and lately, we’ve noticed more high-level restaurants establishing their own proprietary wines. Have you changed that program at all since you started with them in 1980?

We taste the wine every year—it’s the staff beverage, so we drink it a fair amount. We also have the advantage of having a zin festival where we pour ten vintages going back. Jay Heminway continues to tweak it, now using all estate fruit, a little syrah; he continues to make it better. We’re very happy with the relationship and it provides an inexpensive good glass of wine for our guests. It’s the cheapest red wine on our list.

He calls me every year and says: Do you want to order it again? It isn’t guaranteed, but I tell him, of course I do. Usually, I buy 350 cases a year, and I said I want to get 400 cases next year. We started doing this late night steak special after 9:30, which is late for Berkeley: one plate with shoestring potatoes, rocket salad and a glass of zin for $25. It was Alice’s idea. The kitchen was reticent at first, but it’s brought in a young crowd. It’s all young hipsters with their gorgeous girlfriends on dates. It’s clearly brought in a different crowd. When you run a restaurant you like drawing different people in and the late night steak has really done that. Like many ideas Alice has, they don’t seem like they will really work, but they do. That’s the genius I credit her with.

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