Kelsey Duke

Private-Label Wine is a Crowning Achievement

Nothing trumps a bottle of first-growth Bordeaux on a wine list like a proprietary wine developed in partnership with a winery.

“To be able to have your own private label is a bucket-list item,” says Andrew Kim, co-founder of matchbox food group, which has eight restaurants in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and Palm Springs, California—including Ted’s Bulletin, DC-3, and matchbox.

Kim partnered with Steele Wines in Lake County, California, on a wine that can stack up to his spicy, rich tapas and dishes cooked in a wood-burning oven. “We wanted something that was a good pizza wine, as well,” says Kim. A blend of 10 grapes, including Zinfandel and Syrah, the “matchbox blend” rolled out last summer and sells for $8 a glass or $29 a bottle.

Over Kim’s decade-long relationship with Steele Wines’ owner Jed Steele, sales of the winery’s Pinot Noir at matchbox restaurants were impressive, so Steele didn’t hesitate to comply with Kim’s request to produce a proprietary wine, even sending four bottles to sample. Kim immediately committed to 225 cases.

Other restaurants have had private-label wines for years, such as Chicago’s Bin 36, which began partnering with Hahn Winery in Soledad, California, in 2006—producing an average of seven wines each year. Outside of Bin 36’s restaurant and store, the wines are distributed in 37 states.

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts tapped into the trend in 2007, and now produces five varietals under the Canvas label with Folio Fine Wine Partners (owned by the Michael Mondavi family). They are poured at restaurants and bars inside all 125 Hyatt Hotels in the U.S.

Exclusive wines can beef up a wine list by offering something nobody else has. “When I talk about the wine and give people the story behind it, they say, ‘I need to buy it,’ and I say, ‘You can’t,’” says Peter Vauthy, executive chef of Red, The Steakhouse in Miami Beach, Florida, about his proprietary-blend wine.

“A restaurant at our level needed something else,” explains Vauthy, noting that as a purveyor of top ingredients, including Miyazaki Kobe beef from Japan, and pricey, boutique wines, the stakes were high.

When Freddy Constant, owner of Diamond Mountain Vineyard in Calistoga, California, dropped by the restaurant to taste his just-released 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, he mentioned leftover juice from the harvest. Vauthy floated the idea of a proprietary-blend wine, agreeing to a minimum of 25 cases. The wines—2008 and 2009 Red Reserve Diamond Mountain Vineyard, $199 a bottle—he says, “make the steak explode.” That the wine stems from Napa Valley’s Diamond Mountain district, and is made by Paul Hobbs, attracts serious wine drinkers.

Peter Ackerman, vice president of operations of Salvatore’s Restaurants, which has five locations in the Boston area, traveled to wineries in Sicily in search of a partner. “How do we start a partnership so that we both win?” he asked both himself and wineries. In the end, he chose a small, family-owned winery. Two wines, which feature Frappato and Catarratto grapes grown on the side of Sicily’s Mount Etna, launched in September, selling for $9.50 a glass or $32 a bottle.

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