When building a wine list or stocking shelves, buyers often sense what will be a surefire hit with customers. But sometimes, unexpected bottles gain major favor with an establishment’s clientele. What’s the secret to these sleeper-hit wines? Is it price point, excitement from the service and sales teams, or something new to the market?
SevenFifty Daily spoke with buyers from around the country about the wines that proved to be big sellers in 2023. Many unexpected hits came from lesser-known grapes and regions, or familiar favorites with something new to offer. (All wines are listed with price per bottle at the noted establishment.)
Jolie-Laide ‘Fanucchi-Wood Road Vineyard’ Trousseau Gris 2022, Sonoma County, California; $50
Selected by Krista Church, sommelier and general manager, Neighborhood Vintner, Austin, Texas
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights. Sign up for our award-winning newsletters and get insider intel, resources, and trends delivered to your inbox every week.
Neighborhood Vintner, a hybrid wine shop and wine bar, specializes in rare and allocated French wines, but sommelier and general manager Krista Church also likes to offer unique global selections that hit a range of price points. “We want to improve the wine-buying experience for all—from the newly interested to the experienced collector,” she says.
This year, both customers and staff fell head over heels for this Trousseau Gris from Jolie-Laide, which was new to the Austin market. “Guests who take the leap are wowed,” says Church. “I could pour this for my Chardonnay-loving mom, my best friend in L.A., and at a collector’s bottle-share, and they’d all find something to love.” A unique story behind the wine adds to its allure: the grape, a mutation of red Trousseau, comes from a small block in the Fanucchi-Wood Road Vineyard in Sonoma and is one of the last plots of Trousseau Gris left in the U.S.
Selects Cortese 2022, Lodi, California; $56
Selected by Emily Bielagus, co-owner and wine director, The Ruby Fruit, Los Angeles
Open for just about a year, The Ruby Fruit quickly found its niche in a strip mall in Los Angeles. Owners Emily Bielagus and Mara Herbkersman built the bar for the “sapphically inclined,” and call it a safe space for non-binary, gender-nonconforming, and trans people. In keeping with the ethos of the bar, “We feature natural wines exclusively from producers who are female and/or members of the LGBTQIA+ community,” says Bielagus.
The Selects Cortese checks all the boxes. Bielagus describes its profile as “Meyer lemon, crushed oyster shell, and a bright clean finish. It’s refreshing and light enough to enjoy alone, but it has enough depth to hold its own against any food item from our menu.” She accounts for its runaway popularity due to its easy-drinking nature, as well as a way for people to explore the orange wine trend. “It’s a very crushable orange wine and a great intro to skin contact for the uninitiated,” she says.
Muga El Andén de la Estación Crianza 2019, Rioja, Spain; $24
Selected by Melissa J. McAvoy, owner, Swirlery Wine Bar, Orlando, Florida
At Swirlery, which bills itself as a bar, tasting room, and wine shop, owner Melissa J. McAvoy is always on the lookout for new wines to share with her guests, especially selections that work equally well as a by-the-glass pour in the shop as with dinner at a customer’s kitchen table.
This past year, McAvoy, an advanced sommelier, began pouring this cuvée of Tempranillo and Garnacha, which was a new project from the Muga estate and new to the central Florida market. Its all-around newness, plus “the combination of a great price point, brand recognition, alongside the popularity of Tempranillo and the Rioja region, have all contributed to this knockout glass of wine,” says McAvoy. She describes the wine as “bright and fresh, with expressions of blackberry, black cherry, and round tannins,” and calls it a versatile discovery for lovers of juicier styles of wines.
Guardians Saperavi 2021, Kakheti, Georgia; $20
Selected by Jarad Slipp, MS, owner, Knead Wine, Middleburg, Virginia
At Knead Wine, a retail shop located on a tree-lined street in Middleburg, Virginia, customers can order a pizza to go and pick up a bottle to pair with the pie at the same time. Owner Jarad Slipp worked as a restaurant director in New York City and Washington D.C., before settling down in Virginia’s wine country.
Bottles at Knead Wine predominately fall into two price points—$20 or $45—and Slipp aims to find wines that punch above their weight. One breakout hit has been the Guardians Saperavi. Slipp says Georgian wines are fairly unknown in the market, but as “a region that’s been [making wine] longer than most, there’s a lot to explore,” he says. In particular, he calls this Saperavi “a rare teinturier grape (meaning both flesh and skins are red in color) that’s soft and gulpable.” The $20 price encourages customers to give it a try, and the wine itself holds shelf appeal. “The badass girl power label doesn’t hurt either,” he says.
Schieferkopf Trocken Riesling 2018, Baden, Germany; $19.95
Selected by Phil Bilodeau, proprietor and cofounder, Thief Wine Shop and Bar, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Inside Milwaukee Public Market, Phil Bilodeau, Wisconsin’s only Master of Wine candidate, brings his years of wine expertise to the bustling food hall. In addition to over 800 selections in the wine shop, Bilodeau operates a wine bar with 30 by-the-glass offerings that he regularly rotates. The model helps him and the staff share wines they love with customers and turn them on to styles they might not be familiar with.
“We’ve got a great opportunity to pour interesting or esoteric wines by the glass alongside the classics, and this is one that we’re currently pouring,” says Bildeau. “Once people try this, they’re loving it, and asking about all the other dry Rieslings we have as well.” With the Schieferkopf in particular, “there’s loads of stone fruits and a bit of white flowers, complemented by that acidity that keeps everything in balance. With a couple of years of bottle age, it’s drinking beautifully right now.”
Château de Parenchère ‘L’Équilibriste’ 2021, Bordeaux, France; $19.99
Selected by Jade Palmer, wine buyer and manager, Hop City Krog Street Market, Atlanta
As a “sky sommelier” for Delta Air Lines, Jade Palmer gained an elevated education in wine fundamentals and wine pairings. Now, she’s working as the wine buyer at Hop City Krog Street Market, which focuses on small-production, natural, and sustainable wines from all over the world, as well as craft beers, ciders, and meads.
Palmer poured the Château de Parenchère Bordeaux at a weekend wine tasting in the fall of 2023 and says customers asked for it so often it became an inventory staple. She counts its appeal as being an affordable and approachable wine from a region that often seems out of reach. “It’s a well-made, sub-$20 Bordeaux, a region that has typically been harder to access as a casual wine drinker,” says Palmer. She describes the wine as having, “notes of juicy blackberries and blackcurrants with a distinct aroma of mole sauce—peppers, dark chocolate, and spices—plus a natural crunch on the finish.”
Patricia Green Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2022, Willamette Valley, Oregon; $64
Selected by Elaine Kim Heide, wine director, The Allison Inn and Spa, Newberg, Oregon
The Willamette Valley is known for its Pinot Noir and increasingly, Chardonnay, which is why other varieties get a double take from guests at The Allison Inn and Spa. “Sauvignon Blanc from the Willamette Valley is an unexpected surprise and many people try a glass to simply be adventurous,” says Elaine Kim Heide. After the first glass, “A second glass or upgrade to a bottle is irresistible.”
Heide, a Master of Wine student and a WSET instructor, has been a longtime advocate for all things Oregon. She built the 700-bottle-strong wine list at Jory, the property’s restaurant, with a focus on Oregon wine, alongside global selections. She loves to bring surprises like the Patricia Green Cellars Sauvignon Blanc to the table. “The wine reveals itself to be not just thirst-quenching, but also vividly energetic, flavorful but not loud, saline, and well balanced,” she says.
Chiara Condello Romagna Sangiovese 2020, Predappio, Italy; $58
Selected by Elliot Strathmann, co-owner, Spuntino, Denver
“We had the lucky chance to meet Chiara when she spent a day in Denver early last year and it was immediately clear that she was just the sort of winemaker whose story and wines we have always loved sharing,” says Strathmann, who, with his wife, chef Cindhura Reddy, has been operating their Italian restaurant for 10 years. “So much of what we do at Spuntino is try to take guests on an adventure through their meal, starting from a comfortable point, such as the Sangiovese grape, but then offer a bit of intrigue and a unique story.”
Condello only makes two wines, and both show “the unique character of Sangiovese from this densely wooded region of Romagna,” says Strathmann. “The smaller berries offer a particularly fine-textured tannin and somewhat darker fruit profile than the Tuscan wines people tend to know, but it still drinks in a familiar, food-friendly territory.”
Daniel Etienne-Defaix ‘Les Lys’ 1er Cru 2010, Chablis, France; $180
Selected by Mike Lee, wine director, La Toque, Napa, California
La Toque first opened in Los Angeles in 1979, relocated to Rutherford in 1998, and has been in its current home in Napa’s Oxbow District since 2008. Its longevity can be attributed to the seasonally focused cuisine, special tasting menus, and a wine list that goes way beyond Napa’s backyard.
Wine director Mike Lee says one wine that continues to intrigue customers is this decade-plus-old Chablis from Daniel Etienne-Defaix. “This wine did and continues to do well because it’s rare to experience a current release, aged, and well-cellared Chablis in a by-the-glass format in restaurants,” says Lee. Coming from a 12-acre plot of Kimmeridgian soils, he says it “shows richness, chalky minerality, acacia flowers, hints of almond skin, and green apples on a long, powerful finish. Plus, it makes for an amazing food-pairing wine.
Rafael Palacios ‘Louro do Bolo’ Godello 2022, Valdeorras, Spain; $27.99
Selected by Sarah Daniels, buyer, Artisan Wine Shop, Beacon, New York
This bestseller at Artisan Wine Shop, a community-centric wine shop focused on small-production, minimal-intervention wines, landed on the shelf as a happy accident. Buyer Sarah Daniels was tasting a Spanish blend with a rep and said it reminded her of Godello. The rep happened to have the Rafael Palacios Godello in his car and brought it out for comparison.
“This bottle was so dang good the comparison was a moot point—I ordered it for the shop almost immediately,” says Daniels. “Medium in body, it’s textural and layered with flavor, but totally approachable, offering a distinct minerality softened by fresh white floral, white peach and fennel tones, and lifted acidity.” She believes its price point is a key factor in its popularity. “This was such a hit because it is really, truly delicious and its under-$30 price tag is often a sweet spot for much of our customer base,” she says.
Michael Lavelle Iris Chenin Blanc 2022, Clarksburg, California; $68
Selected by Tia Barrett, general manager, Hav and Mar, New York City
Hav and Mar’s wine list does more than just offer an exciting and diverse lineup of wines to match with the restaurant’s cuisine, which pulls inspiration from all over the globe. It also champions underrepresented winemakers, especially female and BIPOC producers, as well as philanthropically minded labels.
Tia Barrett says the Michael Lavelle Chenin, in particular, “a medium-bodied wine with stone fruit,” exemplifies the ethos of the list, which in turn makes it popular with both the service team and guests. “This wine has sold well as it speaks to the mission of our beverage program and restaurant: to feature interesting and approachable BIPOC producers,” says Barrett. “The producers are four men from Howard University who aim to give back.” Five percent of their sales are donated to The Roots Fund, a nonprofit organization that empowers BIPOC through scholarship and education. Barrett believes having stories like this to share with guests not only contributes to a wine’s popularity, but also creates commonality and community with diners.
Sign up for our award-winning newsletter
Don’t miss the latest drinks industry news and insights—delivered to your inbox every week.
Shana Clarke is a wine, sake, and travel writer, and the author of 150 Vineyards You Need To Visit Before You Die. Her work has appeared in Saveur, Fortune, NPR, Wine Enthusiast, and Hemispheres. She was shortlisted for the Louis Roederer 2020 International Wine Writers’ Awards and ranked one of the “Top 20 U.S. Wine Writers That Wineries Can Work With” by Beverage Trade Network in 2021. She holds a Level 3 Advanced Certificate from Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Sake Sommelier. She will always say yes to a glass of Champagne. Learn more at www.shanaspeakswine.com and follow her @shanaspeakswine.