The Inside Scoop on House Wines

They’re not just simple glasses of cab and, of course, chardonnay

If you thought restaurant house wines were an inexpensive red and white pair that you could easily buy at a package store to enjoy at home later, you’d be wrong. Very wrong.

“I bristle at the term,” says Dan Butler, owner of Piccolina Toscana in Wilmington and co-owner of Brandywine Prime in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. “It usually means cheap wines, and we don’t have wines that are substandard.”

And just a pair? Au contraire. At The Gables at Chadds Ford, “We would consider our ‘by the glass’ to be our house wines,” says Cathy Centofanti, online accounts manager. There are 21 on the wine list.

Restaurateurs often pick vintages that are hard for customers to buy, so that you’ll return for another meal and another bottle. At Domaine Hudson, the house red is “pretty much made for us,” says co-owner Beth Ross, with the Wilmington restaurant being the largest seller of Le Cadeau Red Label pinot noir in the world ($18 a glass, $79 a bottle). The Oregon vineyard has supplied Domaine Hudson with a pinot noir (fruit-forward with elements of cedar, tea and dark cherry, she says) since the restaurant opened in 2006.

Harry’s Savoy Grill in North Wilmington is more exclusive. “We’ve had private-label wines since 1995,” says John Narvaez, restaurant manager. Current house wines are a 2016 California chardonnay and a 2016 French cabernet, both $7 a glass, $28 a bottle, with restaurant name and artwork.

“The white has always been chardonnay,” says Narvaez. “In the beginning, we had merlot but transitioned to cabernet a few years later as we felt it better suited what our guests desired. The choice to have these varietals is based on our guests’ familiarity with these varietals and how well they pair with many items on our menu.”

Elsewhere, house wines—pours, features or favorites, with terms varying at venues— are fleeting.

At the Columbus Inn in Wilmington, four wines are featured each week in 3- and 6-ounce glasses. They might be new or under-appreciated, says Hayla DeLano, general manager. Twenty house pours are also available by the glass, and both the featured wines and the house pours promote the restaurant’s lengthy wine list. That list has evolved from an Old-World focus, organized by region, to one organized by varietals and bins. “We want to make it approachable,” DeLano says. “Nobody wants to sound stupid. They just want a good wine.”

At Tonic Bar and Grille in Wilmington, the by-the-glass list changes every six weeks or so, says Paul Bouchard, a managing partner who buys all the wine. He doesn’t like the term “house wine” because of its connotation and instead tries to “find the best value” and balance the selection with wines meant to be drunk alone and to be enjoyed with food.

Seasonal Changes

Recent “Tonic favorites”: the 2015 Caparzo Super Tuscan (“such a great representation of Italy,” Bouchard says; it’s $9 a glass, $30 a bottle) and the Pazo Carelo Albarino (“the perfect shellfish wine”; $9 a glass, $32 a bottle). “I like to choose wines that taste like the areas they’re grown.”

At Delaware Park, house wines can change by the season, and selections are reconsidered “any time we have a new food menu coming out, to make sure the flavor profiles match up,” says Sam Mahan, food and beverage operations manager. “Of course, there’s the classic white for fish and light meats, red for heavy meats, but it does get more dynamic,” adds Mahan, who oversees wines at a half-dozen restaurants, including At the Rail Wine Bar and Grille. “We’re constantly tasting wines.”

Although most grapes are harvested in the fall (exceptions include ice wines and austral vineyards—harvested in the northern spring), varied processes mean wines are released throughout the year.

Restaurants consider new house wines during visits by vineyard representatives, from the reaction at themed dinners and with advice from their wholesalers.

“There are several schools of thought about house wines,” says Kelly Stoltzfus, hospitality division manager at Breakthru Beverage Delaware. “Some people like to have one brand as a cost-saving measure, providing every varietal. Others don’t because it appears to be cheap.”

“Cheap” is a loaded word. Instead, the house wine could be the equivalent of well alcohol. Some places have a second or third price tier of house wines, the equivalent of call and premium liquors.

Stoltzfus recommends picking house wines with broad appeal. “A chardonnay that’s not overly oaky, not overly buttery or a cabernet that’s not overly tannic and not too big so that people will have a second or third glass,” she says.

“We still have the generation that will just ask for a cab,” Stoltzfus says, suggesting that a well-trained staff will ask what kind, with Breakthru providing such training, if needed. “Millennials will drink less but of more expensive wines. Six classic varietals will hit every wine-drinking demographic,” she says, naming cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, pinot grigio, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc.

Beth & Michael Ross, owners of Domiane Hudson. Photo by Jim Coarse

Nine House Wines

A wide demographic of visitors led Hilton Wilmington/Christiana to designate nine varietals as house wines at its Market Kitchen & Bar. It’s usually $8 or $9 a glass for the house cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, dry riesling, merlot, moscato, pinot grigio, pinot noir, Prosecco and white zinfandel, says Keith Davis, director of food and beverage. “I do give a lot of options so people can have their choice,” he says. “Everything I sell, I taste.”

These wines are the hotel’s second tier. Banquets get Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi wines. The house wines change occasionally, Davis says, perhaps spurred by declining popularity, gaps in delivery, limited attention to the small Delaware market, and price increases.

“If you’re going to spend $100, it’s easy to find a good bottle,” says Butler. “The challenge and the thrill of the hunt for a house wine is to find great options at all price points.”

A house wine also makes it easier to cater to a crowd. “For parties, we have a house pour,” Butler says. “They’re also crowd pleasers, not esoteric choices that most people won’t appreciate.”

At Toscana, the house wines are Vernaccia di San Gimignano (“we offer the [crisp] producer Fontaleoni now, but we always have a good one on the list” at $8.50 a glass, $34 a bottle) and La Maialina Gertrude Super Tuscan, a fruit-forward, approachable red that’s $8.50 a glass, $30 a bottle.

A wide selection caters to multiple tastes. “People have become more sophisticated,” Ross says, and Domaine Hudson is responding with a list of 40 wines by the glass and 450 bottles, including the Red Label house red and the house white (Andre Bonhomme Viré-Clessé chardonnay, $16 a glass and $64 a bottle, “very elegant with a heavy mouth feel,” she says).

At Banks’ Seafood Kitchen in Wilmington, “We wanted to offer a selection of varietals that lend themselves well to our primary cuisine offered, which is seafood, of course,” says Jordan DeMaio, general manager. The picks: Canyon Road chardonnay and cabernet ($8 a glass, $32 a bottle), Twisted pinot grigio ($8.50 a glass, $34 a bottle) and Block Nine pinot noir ($9.50 a glass, $38 a bottle).

At Gallucio’s Italian Restaurant in Wilmington, the house wines are all popular, says Angela Robinson, bar manager. These Camelot vintages are $5 a glass: a crisp and refreshing pinot grigio, a lightly oaked chardonnay, a merlot and a “rich, dark and delicious” cabernet.

But what of the experts themselves? When they eat out, do they consider house wines?

“Absolutely,” says DeLano. “I believe in trusting the staff and finding something you’ve never heard of and not just going for a familiar label.”

“No,” says Davis. “I’m very discriminating.”

“That depends,” says Ross. “If they don’t have anything I like, I’ll order a beer.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.