Bottled in House: The Rise of the Winemaker Chef

New House Wine Sign

In the United States, restaurant "house wines” are typically cheap, bulk wines that a restaurant puts on its menu to hit a certain (low) price point. Quality is generally not a determining factor in selecting the wines and these house wines are hardly representative of the house in which they are poured. Even worse, for only a dollar or two more, there are often far superior options on the wine list that would offer far greater enjoyment.

Yet, a growing number of likeminded restaurateurs and chefs are seeking to rectify the dismal status of house wines by collaborating with well-known winemakers to craft food friendly, house wines intended to pair specifically with their cuisine.  

Here, we take a look at four unique, chef crafted house wines to consider this rising trend firsthand.  

Bottega, Napa Valley CA

With as many chefs that are now venturing into the wine world, few have been involved with the winemaking process as long as Napa Valley chef and TV personality Michael Chiarello. Opening in 1995, the chef’s Chiarello Family Vineyards focuses on small production, estate wines sourced from the twenty acre vineyard surrounding Chiarello’s home. The hundred year old, own rooted vines are sustainably farmed by Chiarello himself and with the help of award winning winemaker, Thomas Rivers Brown, the winery has garnered quite the reputation for itself amongst the critics.  

A staunch advocate for organic and sustainable farming, for the chef, Chiarello Family Vineyards was never about making money.  

“Besides,” Chiarello explained “winemaking is a horrendous business plan. Could you imagine having to make 17,000 plates of pasta before you can sell one?”

Instead, the winery was meant to serve as an experiment in farming and a way for the chef to channel his culinary creativity into another medium other than food. “I didn’t want entertainment only on the plate, I wanted it in the glass too.”

Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, Nationwide

With restaurant holdings around the country, celebrity chefs and partners– Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali have amassed a culinary empire focusing on the simple delights of Italian cuisine. United by their mutual love of food and wine, it was thus only natural for the team to eventually venture into winemaking.   

Lidia, along with her son Joe, first entered into the wine world with the Bastianich Winery in 1997 located in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region in northwest Italy. Only three years later, the duo would partner with Batali to operate the La Mozza winery in the Maremma region of southwest Tuscany. Working with new and exciting grape varieties, the team brought their unique wines back into the US to feature in their restaurant holdings throughout the country. The wines immediately gained quite the following and in 2006, Bastianich Winery was named Wine and Spirits magazine’s Winery of the Year.   

Collaborating with winemaker, Maurizio Castelli on both projects, both Lidia and Mario use their extensive culinary experience to provide critical feedback during the winemaking process and direct the style of wine to one that customers will want and that, above all, will pair with their food.     

Batali is quoted in the Wine Report as saying his main goal for the project “is to make a wine that is simple enough to enjoy on its own and to pair with food, not overpower it.”   

Ink, Los Angeles, CA

Working in kitchens since he was fifteen, Top Chef Michael Voltaggio never received any formal culinary training, yet has already made quite the name for himself in the culinary world. He received a Michelin star for his work at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen and was named Food and Wine magazine’s Best New Chef of 2013. With Ink, Voltaggio’s edgy Los Angeles eatery, modern cuisine is taken to the edge. So it’s no surprise that his house wine, Rust, is no different.

Released earlier this year as the first in a series of winemaker and artist collaborations through online retailer Club W, Rust is a wine unlike any other. Referred to as an orange wine, Rust is essentially a white wine made in the style of a red in which the bottle’s Grenache Blanc grapes are left in contact with their skins for an extended period, giving the wine its signature orange hues. With enticing aromas of apricot and citrus, due to the extended skin contact, the wine also offers a great, textural grip not often seen in whites.   

In terms of food and wine pairings, “Orange is the new red” said Voltaggio in a press release. “I am excited about this style of wine so the opportunity to collaborate with such a progressive winemaker was an obvious one.” The winemaker he speaks of is Chris Pittenger of Skinner Family Vineyards in El Dorado, a strong advocate for the natural winemaking movement.   

“Rust is meant for food and conversation, so it is exciting to see the array of dishes and ingredients that Michael will put it up against” said Pittenger.  

Love and Salt, Manhattan Beach, CA

  Love and Salt Dolcetto Wine  | Instagram, loveandsaltla

Love and Salt Dolcetto Wine | Instagram, loveandsaltla

A newcomer to the restaurant scene, Michael Fiorelli’s Love and Salt has been open less than two months and is already making waves with their killer Italian inspired small plate selections and inexpensive, yet innovative wine program. Segregating the wine list into "From the Boot" and "Neighborhood Wines" for Italian and local California wines respectively, Love and Salt has tapped into both LA's obsession with eating and drinking local while still staying true to traditional, regional pairings.  

And in case you can't decide what to drink from their extensive wine list in which every bottle is priced under $100, their house wine, a Dolcetto and Refosco blend, also labeled Love and Salt, is sure to knock your socks off. A collaboration between the restaurant and Steve Clifton of Palmina and Brewer Clifton fame, this lighter bodied, higher acid wine is a blend of grapes sourced from vineyards planted only two hours away.

“We were looking to create a locally inspired Italian wine” described Love and Salt owner Guy Gabriele. “It was clear that Palmina was the perfect partner for us….Together we’ve created a local Italian varietal that showcases our shared philosophy. Italian red, California soul.”

Versatile with a rustic, simplicity, Love and Salt is not a wine to sit and ponder life over. It is a wine you want to guzzle in large quantities, surrounded by copious amounts of food. And Love and Salt is happy to deliver.

Coming Soon

Hoping to join the ranks of these trendsetters, French born chef Ludo Lefebvre has also announced he will be releasing a Chablis from his newly created Burgundian wine label, Maison Ludo. Collaborating with American winemaker Ray Walker, the wine should hit markets later this year.