Wine

The 20 Breakout Bottles of 2018

These are the year’s unexpected hits, according to somms, retail buyers, and sales reps

As 2018 comes to a close, so too do the year’s sales figures, giving wine buyers—and sellers—an opportunity to reflect on the bottles that broke away from the pack this year. These are not necessarily the top-selling bottles—a category often dominated by house by-the-glass pours—but the wines that sold unexpectedly well. SevenFifty Daily asked 20 sommeliers, retail buyers, and sales reps to highlight the bottles that were their breakouts in 2018 and offer their theories as to why these wines were such huge hits. (The prices listed are those of the bottles in the respective restaurants, shops, and portfolios.)

Palmento Costanzo Bianco di Sei Etna Bianco 2017, Sicily, Italy; $21/glass, $90/bottle

Selected by Mariarosa Tartaglione, head sommelier, Marea; New York City

The Bianco di Sei, a Carricante-Catarratto blend, has been featured on Marea’s list since the end of 2016, but according to Tartaglione, the wine reached its “peak of notoriety” this year. “It is the favorite of many regulars, staff members, sommeliers, and never-disappointed first-time diners,” she says. Marea offers quite a few wines from the Etna region, which pair well with the restaurant’s coastal Italian cuisine, but the entire team was surprised by the Bianco di Sei’s clean, precise style and how expressive it is of both the terroir of the region and the character of the Carricante variety. Tartaglione has had success recommending this bottle to Sauvignon Blanc and Chablis lovers. Marea sold about 190 six-pack cases in 2018.

Early Mountain Cabernet Franc 2015, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia; $13/glass, $50/bottle

Selected by Margaret Perry, general manager and beverage director, Kyirisan; Washington, D.C.

This Shenandoah Cabernet Franc became a breakout star as soon as Perry worked it into a June wine dinner alongside Loire-style wines from France and California. It stole the show, prompting her to pour the wine by the glass at this funky neighborhood joint whose cuisine combines Chinese ingredients with French cooking techniques. There are many reasons Perry loves this wine—its representation of local Virginia wine, its versatility with food, and its ability to satisfy lovers of big red wines as well as those who prefer softer options. “My favorite moment was with a French couple who asked for some recommendations,” Perry says. “I had just gotten in some lovely Jura wines, but they insisted on something local. They loved it so much that they finished the bottle and ordered two glasses for dessert.”

Martha Stoumen Varietally Incorrect Zinfandel 2017, Suisun Valley, California; $38/bottle

Selected by Coly Den Haan, owner and sommelier, Vinovore; Los Angeles

Although the Varietally Incorrect Zinfandel was a new release from up-and-coming experimental winemaker Martha Stoumen, Den Haan had no hesitation about stocking up on it. “Martha is one of my favorite winemakers all around,” she says, “and most of her wines are small production and pretty sought after, so I jump on any quantities I can get my hands on.” Since the fall, Den Haan has sold six cases of this Zinfandel—a wine that defies expectations of California Zin. Natural-wine lovers looking for something a little more special than the everyday bottle have taken well to this wine, says Den Haan, and many come back to buy a second bottle for someone else that they think will appreciate it.

Santo Assyrtiko 2017, Santorini, Greece; $10/glass, $33/bottle

Selected by Sandy Block, MW, head of beverage operations, Legal Sea Foods; Boston

According to Block, this Assyrtiko sold surprisingly well this year. “I say ‘surprisingly,’” he adds, “because few guests were familiar with the grape variety, producer, or region.” By listing this well-priced bottle under the Great Shellfish Wine category of the wine list of the Boston-based Legal Sea Foods chain, Block enabled guests to feel comfortable exploring beyond their comfort zones with a ready-made pairing. “There is a growing curiosity about unfamiliar wines,” Block says, “and this worked well for those looking for an adventure in discovering something new and delicious at a value-oriented price.”

Jaimee Motley Mondeuse 2016, Santa Maria Valley, California; $75/bottle

Selected by James O’Brien, owner and general manager, Popina; Brooklyn, New York

New York wine lovers go out of their way to visit Popina, a hotspot in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, both for its blended Italian and southern American dishes and for O’Brien’s well-priced wine list. He immediately added this Mondeuse to the program in May after he tasted it at a lunch with Motley, one of California’s most talked-about new winemakers. “In trying to find wines from the U.S. that spoke to me, this was the head of the pack,” O’Brien says. “It’s juicy like Beaujolais, with the swag of Syrah.” With Motley’s limited production, O’Brien was able to get only one case for Popina, but it sold out quickly because of his excitement about the wine (though he admits that he stashed away a bottle for safekeeping). Wine insiders and sommeliers gravitated toward the Mondeuse on their own, but O’Brien also often recommended it to those looking for Syrah or spicy wines.

Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Napa Valley, California; $89/bottle

Selected by Adam Sweders, wine director, DineAmic Group; Chicago

Though Sweders heads up the programs at all of DineAmic Group’s restaurants, he spends most nights on the floor at Prime & Provisions, one of Chicago’s top steakhouses. Added to the restaurant’s list in September, the Turnbull Cabernet Sauvignon has been selling at about two cases a week, which Sweders says is “amazing” for a wine that’s not being poured by the glass. “The wine has explosive power and concentration, with a typical Napa Cab style,” he says, “and I was able to list it for under $100, which is unheard of for any Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.” The staff at Prime & Provisions loves the selection frequently recommends it, particularly when guests request something under $100. Adds Sweders, “Practically every guest to whom we serve the ’16 Turnbull says, ‘Wow, thank you!’”

Danilo Thomain Enfer d’Arvier 2013, Valle d’Aosta, Italy; $63/bottle

Selected by Nathan Conway, co-owner and wine director, Brenner Pass; Richmond, Virginia

For this modern Alpine-style restaurant, Conway often seeks new wines from Alpine regions to add to the wine list. He tasted this Enfer d’Arvier from Danilo Thomain late last year and was blown away. As the highest-elevation appellation in the Valle d’Aosta, Enfer d’Arvier (“Hell of Arvier”) captures heat by means of its amphitheater-shaped vineyard and yields balanced wines with bright acidity and deep, sour cherry–like fruit. It has become a frequent recommendation by staff members, and the label alone—a demon wielding a wine bottle and a pitchfork—intrigues diners. “Guests almost always love the wine,” Conway says. “It’s great for those who want to try something Alpine but not crazy expensive, as well as those who like Burgundy or northern Rhône wines.”

Di Costanzo Di Co Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Napa Valley, California; $30/glass, $99/bottle

Selected by Crystl Horton, wine director, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse New York; New York City

Horton added the Di Co Cabernet Sauvignon to the list at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse New York as soon as it arrived in the city in November. A little brother of sorts, as Horton calls it, to the flagship Di Costanzo Cabernet Sauvignon, Di Co is an independent project from Massimo Di Costanzo in Coombsville, and only 270 cases were produced. “It’s a beautiful blend of the Old World and the New,” Horton notes. “Guests are loving it, so much so that they finish a glass and almost immediately switch to a bottle—a clear success!” Horton expects to sell two cases of this approachable, fruit-forward wine per week into the new year.

Illinois Sparkling Co. Brut Ombré Rosé NV, Utica, Illinois; $9/glass, $39/bottle

Selected by Keith Whitten, general manager and wine director, Daisies; Chicago

The Brut Ombré Rosé has been a staple of Daisies’ wine list since the restaurant opened in July 2017, but the wine has really exploded this past year, selling at a rate of about a case per week. “This wine resonates with the ethos of our restaurant,” Whitten says. Most of Daisies’ ingredients come from nearby Frillman Farms, which is owned by Chef Joe Frillman’s brother, and similarly, the traditional-method Ombré Rosé is made from Chambourcin grapes at a small winery in Peru, Illinois. “It is a handcrafted product from farm to bottle, just like the food we serve,” says Whitten. “It really turns people’s heads and opens them up to the idea that the region they live in can offer great, pleasurable wine.”

Substance Cs Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, Columbia Valley, Washington; $15/bottle

Selected by Glen Knight, New World wine buyer, The Wine House; Los Angeles

This isn’t the first time Knight has carried Substance’s Cabernet Sauvignon at The Wine House. In fact, he stocked this wine by Charles Smith several years ago, then brought it back after retasting it this spring. The L.A. shop’s regular customers have responded well. “Many consumers have been struggling to find good Cabernets under $20,” Knight says, “so this wine filled that void.” After billing Cs as a great wine to keep on hand for everyday drinking, The Wine House has sold 90 cases so far this year—many of them to repeat purchasers.

Castro Ventosa El Castro de Valtuille Godello 2015, Bierzo, Spain; $16/glass, $64/bottle

Selected by Elizabeth Sammuri, wine and beverage director, Flagstaff House; Boulder, Colorado

Given that Flagstaff House, a fine-dining spot with outdoor terraces that’s set atop Flagstaff Mountain, has a cellar of more than 16,000 wines, with some iconic bottles, Sammuri recognizes that this Godello could easily have been overlooked by diners. But she believed in the quality of this wine from experimental winemaker Raul Perez’s family estate and added it to the tasting menu before pouring it by the glass. Selling between six and seven cases since the spring was far more than Sammuri expected. “We’ve had really positive feedback,” she says. “The wine has so much character and complexity and is anything but boring.” She describes it as reminiscent of aged Chablis, with excellent texture and complexity.

Marc Hébrart Noces de Craie Blanc de Noirs 2012, Champagne, France; $175/bottle

Selected by Jim Rollston, MS, wine director, Manresa; Los Gatos, California

At Manresa, a three-Michelin-star restaurant highlighting contemporary California cuisine, Rollston measures quantities of wines sold not in cases but in bottles. This is because of the limited number of guests that are able to dine at Manresa each evening and because of the specialized, small-production wines that make their way onto the restaurant’s list. Rollston was able to get his hands on only six bottles of the Noces de Craie, a single-village Pinot Noir from one of Champagne’s best grower-producers. “Our clientele has a strong interest in exploring the nuances of terroir in Champagne,” Rollston says. “Half the bottles went to savvy wine lovers who just recognized and ordered it, and the other half we hand-sold to guests who would ‘get it.’” Considering the Noces de Craie’s dry, powerful, intensely fruity and chalky style, the Master Sommelier’s only regret was that he didn’t purchase a bottle for himself!

Chêne Bleu Abélard 2009, Vaucluse, France; $165/bottle

Selected by Thibault Idenn, beverage manager, Travelle at the Langham; Chicago

As Idenn prepared for the holiday season at Travelle in mid-October, he sought to add more wines to pair with the seasonal American restaurant’s meat-heavy menu. Having spent several years in the Rhône Valley, this native of the Champagne region looked to the Abélard’s richness and concentration to complement a variety of prime cuts of meat. The wine was popular both with guests that already knew and loved Rhône wines and with those looking to discover something new. Idenn describes the Grenache-dominant wine as silky, with ripe, dark berries, herbes de Provence, black pepper, and other spices. “[Guests] loved the different layers that the wine offers,” he says, “and how well it paired with their dishes, like confit duck-leg rillettes or our Colorado rack of lamb.”

Stolpman Para Maria 2016, Ballard Canyon, California; $28/bottle

Selected by Jason Ohmann, restaurant manager, The Emporium Kitchen & Wine Market; Savannah

Ohmann works to create synergy between the wine list at this all-day American brasserie in the Savannah Historic District and the selections at the adjacent wine shop. He was initially intrigued by the story of the Para Maria, a blend of 80 percent Syrah—part of it vinified using carbonic maceration—and 20 percent Petit Verdot: It was created by Stolpman’s longtime vineyard manager in honor of his wife, Maria. But the bottle delivered on taste too—according to Ohmann, it’s “a Rubik’s Cube that’s a handful of twists away from being perfect—it’s gorgeous and wild.” So far, the wine shop has sold four cases since the Para Maria was added, in mid-November. “This wine resonates with the wine drinker who appreciates a lighter touch when it comes to winemaking—or those who enjoy keeping up with modern trends in Californian winemaking,” Ohmann says. “It’s not what I would call a light wine, but it hasn’t been overly manipulated.”

Hollyhock Lodge Gamay Noir 2016, Santa Barbara, California; $20/bottle

Selected by Vanessa and Warner Moore, proprietors, Unwined Wine & Gourmet; Alexandria, Virginia

Vanessa Moore is quick to assert that Unwined Wine & Gourmet’s two Alexandria, Virginia, locations have had many breakout bottles this year, but if she had to limit herself to highlighting just one, it would be this Gamay from Field Recordings assistant winemaker Tim Fulnecky. The first release of Gamay from his personal project, Hollyhock Lodge, comes from a biodynamic vineyard in Santa Barbara and delivers far more spice and herbal characteristics than most would expect from California fruit. While Cru Beaujolais lovers were instantly intrigued by this bottling, the appeal extended further than wine insiders. “Even for Gamay newbies, everyone recognized the amazing value for the money,” Moore says. “Most customers keep coming back for more, which is the best feedback possible.” Since September, the shop has sold 20 of the 200 cases of this Gamay that were produced.

Arianna Occhipinti SP68 Bianco 2017, Sicily, Italy; $60/bottle

Selected by Spencer Sabo, sommelier, Acadia; Chicago

A fan of Arianna Occhipinti’s approach to winemaking, Sabo has kept the SP68 Bianco on the wine list of two-Michelin-star Acadia for most of the year, moving it from one course to another on the restaurant’s Maine-inspired tasting menu, and Acadia has sold dozens of cases. Sabo thinks that the aromatic blend of Albanello and Zibibbo fits well within the current trend toward hands-off winemaking, but he thinks of it as a natural wine that can work for those who aren’t used to the style. “This was a wine that resonated with just about everyone,” he says. “Just a bit of skin contact brings through those intense floral and tropical fruit aromas, but it’s completely dry and mineral-driven on the palate.”

Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2015, Margaret River, Australia; $43/bottle

Selected by Brian Bargsten, managing partner, Arroyo Vino; Santa Fe, New Mexico

At Arroyo Vino—a combined boutique wine shop and fine-dining restaurant that allows guests to purchase from the shop when dining—Bargsten likes to feature small, family-owned wineries that make delicious wines. Vasse Felix is one of them; it offers quality and history from a country that many people associate with supermarket wine. “This wine delivers Puligny-Montrachet or Chassagne-Montrachet style, intensity, and minerality at less than half the price,” Bargsten says, noting that small vintages have caused white Burgundy prices to skyrocket. “We sell a lot of white Burgundy, but some customers started to balk at the prices, especially for everyday wine.” Since April, Arroyo Vino has sold through 20 six-pack cases of the Vasse Felix Chardonnay.

Marabino Rosso di Contrada 2015, Sicily, Italy; $22/bottle (suggested retail price)

Selected by Vince Attard, sales representative, Vinifera Imports; Ronkonkoma, New York

Attard knows Italian wines like the back of his hand, but when he first tasted the Marabino Rosso di Contrada—a new addition to the Vinifera portfolio—the wine astonished him. That feeling was echoed by Attard’s accounts, some of whom were already familiar with the experimental, natural Sicilian producer through its previous importers. “In the first few months of working with this product,” Attard says, “the enthusiasm that I’ve seen from my customers has been really amazing.” He sees the Rosso di Contrada as an opportunity to showcase Nero d’Avola from Val di Noto in southeastern Sicily, which is believed to be the birthplace of the grape. “These are wines that can fit anywhere in the market,” he says, “from natural wine–focused shops and wine bars to accounts that focus on the classics.”

Jolie-Laide Fanucchi-Wood Road Trousseau Gris 2016, Russian River Valley, California; $18/glass, $60/bottle

Selected by Mary Allison Wright, owner, RiNo Yacht Club, and wine director, Morin and The Proper Pour; Denver

Wright knew she wanted this Trousseau Gris on the list at Morin long before the modern French restaurant opened in October because she’d already fallen in love with the bottle—and all things Jolie-Laide—while offering it at her wine shop The Proper Pour. However, the wine found unexpected success as an on-premise pour, since it excels with a wide range of dishes. “Guest feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” Wright says. “It has left many wanting to delve deeper down the rabbit hole of experiencing wines out of their comfort zone.” Though the skin contact that the wine sees during vinification can be polarizing, Wright maintains that the Trousseau Gris is a great introduction to the style. Having sold 10 cases already, she plans to pour it by the glass indefinitely—or until it sells out!

Alessandro Viola Note di Grillo 2017, Sicily, Italy; $25/bottle

Selected by Chris Leon, owner and wine director, Leon & Son Wine and Spirits; Brooklyn, New York

For his neighborhood wine shop in the Clinton Hill area of Brooklyn, Leon is constantly picking up wines from Sicily. But when he tasted the Note di Grillo from this small, organically farmed estate in April, he felt that the wine’s exotic, salty character made it a discovery even within the category of white Sicilian wines. Leon & Son’s customers agree—the shop has sold more than 16 cases since April, many of which were purchased by repeat buyers of all levels of knowledge. “This wine checks all the boxes for customers seeking out purely natural wines,” Leon says, “but it is still whistle clean for those looking for varietally correct wine. That’s an incredibly tough needle to thread.”

Courtney Schiessl is a Brooklyn-based wine journalist, educator, and consultant who has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir. She has written for Forbes.com, VinePair, and Wine Folly, among other publications, and she is currently pursuing the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits. Follow her Champagne-fueled adventures on Instagram at @takeittocourt.

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