In the still largely Old World dominated wine market of Hong Kong, innovative neighborhood wine bars and retailers strive to clear up the misguided notion that only Bordeaux and Burgundies are worth drinking, and to encourage consumers to be more adventurous in selecting wines from New World regions as well.
California Vintage Wine Bar is at the forefront of this change, beckoning open-minded wine consumers and educating them on the versatile and dynamic character of California’s Wine Country. The group’s motto being “The Authentic Taste of California,” California Vintage successfully brings to Hong Kong the complete Californian experience: the warm, casual, industrial chic atmosphere, along with authentic West Coast cuisine and an extensive 90 label wine list from 22 family owned boutique wineries across The Golden State.
I met with Susan Darwin, one of the Founding Partners and Chief Branding Officer of California Vintage Wine Bar to find out more about the concept behind the wine bar – restaurant – retail shop. We discussed the décor of the place, the composition and arrangement of the wine list, as well as the structure and behavior of the clientele. When asked to suggest a signature food and wine pairing at California Vintage, Susan chose the Baked Laura Chenel Goat Cheese over Roasted Piquillo Peppers and paired it with the 2011 Fritz Sauvignon Blanc.
I’m Susan Darwin. I am one of the Founding Partners and the Chief Branding Officer for California Vintage Wine Bar, Restaurant and Retail Shop. I’ve built the wine program here. I manage relationships with all of the wineries in our portfolio, and am also responsible for all of our market-facing activities, as well as the guest experience here at our flagship location on Wyndham Street.
Please tell me about the history behind California Vintage. How was it conceived and by whom?
I have two founding partners Ralph Roberts and Ralph Roberts. Ralph has extensive experience in Food & Beverage operations and management, having been CEO of many major international restaurant groups, and having done business here in Asia with many of them before. Mike Sadak has also been living and working here in Hong Kong for much of his career and has an investment banking perspective. The two of them have partnered historically on bringing some American concepts to Asia.
A few years ago, around early 2008, as Ralph was thinking about the next thing to do, there was an obvious explosion in demand for wine in Asia, but it was clear that Californian wines were really poorly positioned. So he had the thought of opening a wine bar, a concept that is hot right now in the U.S.. Although people talk about having wine bars in Hong Kong, it really is the restaurants that happen to have wine lists, in many cases. So the seeds were planted for having a California themed wine bar that would bring the story to life.
And to overcome the perception of California wines just being large production, supermarket wines or cult wines, we decided to focus on boutique California wineries. We work directly with a set group and bring their stories to life directly to consumers through our venue.
And please tell me a bit about the décor at California Vintage. How does it fit in with this concept of an American wine bar?
Our tagline is “The Authentic Taste of California,” or “The Authentic California Experience.” In our wine, in our food and in our décor we want to bring the essence of that warm, casual, industrial chic thing that is California’s Wine Country to our guests. Our wine station machines allows us to present all of our wines by the taste (glass and half glass), but because they bring this cool, silver, high-technology feel to the environment, we wanted to embed that in a warm, woody, natural texture to bring the essence of what you experience in Wine Country to life. It’s a little bit of Silicon Valley meets Sonoma County, if you will.
And about the composition of the wine list, is it completely made up of Californian wines? And if so is there a region within California that is given preference?
It is absolutely, 100% family-owned wineries from California. We’ve worked very hard in putting together a portfolio of the wineries to get a “choreographed” cross-section that collectively represents all the regions, varietals, price points and styles that are truly reflective of the essence of the California wine industry. So, even though Napa Valley may be globally the most well known wine region in California, it really represents only about 4% of the planted vineyard land in California. So we have many from Sonoma, the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Sierra Foothills, Central Valley, Central Coast and really a wonderful cross-section of the entire state. So I’d say it’s an equal opportunity regional composition.
And the arrangement of the wine list, is it by variety or region and why?
We’ve organized it very logically. It is in the way I will typically ask a guest what they are looking for, by profile. So it starts with the sparkling, light, crisp wines and then progresses through medium, full-bodied, off-dry whites to rosés and then light, medium, full and bold red, consummating with big teeth-staining Petit Syrahs, and then I also have a selection of dessert wines. So it really goes by the logic of color and weight of the wine. So our print list, our electronic menu and the organization of our wine station machines all follow that same pattern.
And about the food menu here, how does the wine list complement the dishes here? Are the dishes designed to match the wine or do they have their own unique characteristic personality?
It’s very integrated with “The Authentic Taste of California.” Like our wine list, our food list is also organized by wine profile, to get people into the pairing mentality. It has really resonated with the culture here and we’ve been thrilled at the uptake. Originally food was going to be a supporting character in our play but it’s really a co-star. The key ingredients come from California. We bring in Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, Harris Ranch Angus Beef, Napa Valley olive oils. We’re all about delivering that real, authentic flavor in food and wine, and it doesn’t read by soup-salad-appetizer-entrée. It’s things like “light, crisp whites” and what foods would go with that. So, it’s really helpful for our guests in thinking about food and wine pairings.
And have you noticed any trends in the behavior of your guests? Do they usually tend to go for the food and choose a wine to match, or the other way around?
It’s interesting now, because we have a lot of regulars who come back again and again and they have their favorites within both food and wine. There are many people who come in and they are just craving Gilroy Garlic Fries or Baja Fish Tacos or their favorite Angus Beef Sliders. So they’ll come in and ask, “I know I’m getting fish tacos, but which wine should I get?” But then again a lot of people seem to want their refreshing beverage first and so they will start with wine first. I’d say it’s pretty evenly split.
And a bit about the structure of the clientele, what percentage would you say is local, Mainland Chinese, expats or tourists?
It is pretty evenly split between Western expats and Pan-Asian customers. The expats are from all over the world – we have probably more European, Australian and Canadian customers than American, explicitly. A lot of people who have spent time in the States for education or had a career there over the years and recognize some flavors and want to revisit them come back again and again. You actually watch the clientele morph over the course of an evening: Earlier on, there are a bit more Western, older, more professional customers and over the course of the night you see it get younger, more vibrant, more Asian. Groups of young Asian women like to come here, because it is comfortable and safe. And then there are all these guys who think the young Asian women are cute, so they come in looking for them. I don’t know why that happens…
I really like how our venue seems to attract all types and nationalities. We have had really good press coverage, so people who are coming into the area for business or for food and wine related events come here. For example, we were recently selected as Best Group Restaurant at the Restaurant and Bar, Hong Kong for the Wine by the Glass Award. So a lot of people saw that and it raised interest, and we have our certificate displayed up there for everyone to see. It was nice to get recognized – for a California only list, go figure!
The demographic is a great mix, and it’s really one of the reasons we came to Hong Kong in the first place, because it’s such a cosmopolitan, diverse community and there are so many people who have a connection with California.
Sounds like a very dynamic atmosphere…
Yes. We started here on Wyndham Street in Central, because it seemed to have the demographic and traffic patterns we were looking for. And now we have just opened our second location in Wanchai near the Convention Center and we’re expecting the mix to be a little different there. There are a lot of office buildings and government operations there and Convention Center traffic as well. We have a great lunch business here at our flagship location, but it will probably be even more robust over there, because there is a huge business community that deposits in the area to go find lunch every day. So that will be pretty nice.
And a bit about customer behavior, when they come into California Vintage do they usually automatically go to the wine machines or do they sit down and look at the electronic wine lists, or do they look at the food menu first?
It is pretty equally split between customers who want to be served in a traditional sense and those who want to go explore the machines. There are those who come in and they just want to chill out for the night, and are just looking for a great glass of Pinot Noir for example, and we can absolutely please these guests by serving them in the traditional manner. But then there are those guests who see that we have 90 different wines and they want to try something new and different.
And then we also have our regulars who come back again and again, and are looking for the newest wines that have been brought on. These guests tend to keep their Smart Cards in their pockets, so when they walk in on a busy night they can just walk in, grab a glass and it’s like they are at home pouring themselves a cocktail. Depending upon how much curiosity a customer has, he or she will decide to engage directly with the wine station machines or ask a server for assistance.
Typically though people will sit at a table, look through the electronic wine list, check out some stuff before they go to the machines.
How often do you rotate the selection in the wine machines?
There is no set time frame on how often we rotate, other than if a position frees up and we decide based on demand patterns and weather to add something new. Sometimes we just want to introduce something new or know that we can’t take something off the list because we have so many people that love it. On average, I’m bringing in about 5 or 6 new wines a month. So there are 90 wines by the glass from the same set of 22 wineries, but there is always a little novelty, so it’s never static.
And have you noticed any trends in the regions or varietals that customers tend to order from the most, without even asking or looking around first?
It’s been beautiful to see, over the 21 months that we’ve been open, how demand patterns have spread accross varietals. Certainly, there is no meaningful regional correlation, other than the fact that Napa and Sonoma are most familiar to people, meaning that most guests tend to initially go there. When they start to discover the diversity, however, those that get comfortable with what we’re all about tend to want to try other regions. It’s like hiring someone from a very good university and recruiting talent from there – you know that the university did its job in admitting the right students. People feel the same way about our wineries. They know CV does a great job in selecting the wineries to add to its profile, so they don’t need to rely on scores or reviews to choose their wine here. They know that whether it’s the entry level Pinot Grigio or the top of the line Oakville Cabernet, there’s a price-value component that will keep them satisfied.
And that it’s here for a reason, that you selected it among many other for a reason…
Yes, and I think the other thing that is very cool here is that we are very well connected with all of the wineries involved here. The people behind each of these bottles are my friends, and we can bring their stories to life to the customers. Particularly in the Asian culture family value is huge and they love these family stories. Each of my wineries comes through over the course of the year and we do winemaker dinners and tastings with them, and our guests love meeting the people behind the bottles they’ve tried. So there’s a nice personal connection there.
In terms of varietal demand, pleasantly, it’s not just the big Cabernets that you hear everybody drinks in China being ordered. The light, crisp whites, rosés, sparklings, and the lighter reds, like Pinot Noir, are very popular. And that makes sense given the climate and the cuisine. You know, Cabernet doesn’t pair with everything. So it’s nice that people are appreciating the complementarity of food and wine and choosing their wines accordingly. So you don’t see people eating the Pacific Halibut and downing with it a super tannic Cabernet.
A bit more about pairings, if you could pick one particular food and wine pairing that best represents California Vintage, which would it be and why?
One that comes to mind, because it contains one of our signature California cheeses, is our Baked Laura Chenel Goat Cheese over Roasted Piquillo Peppers [photo courtesy of CV] with a sourdough crostini that we grill to order and drizzled with Napa Valley smoked olive oil and smoked paprika. We usually pair that with, really, any one of our Sauvignon Blancs. One that seems to sing is the 2011 Fritz Sauvignon Blanc, with its wonderful herbaceous qualities that work very well with the peppers, and good acidity that cuts through the richness of the chèvre. The weights are complementary to each other, so they really work well together.
And what about those Baja Tacos [photo courtesy of CV] you mentioned? How would you pair those?
Oh, those are very good. Again, any of our light, crisp whites can work. We also have a few really nice proprietary white blends. Venge Winery in Napa Valley does a blend called Spettro, which is the Italian word for “spectrum.” The blend is 61% Sauvignon Blanc, 31% Chardonnay and 8% Chenin Blanc. So you get a little bit of weight and soft floral qualities from the Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, respectively, but still the structure and lean qualities of the Sauvignon Blanc, which cut through that fried batter while also supporting that lovely fresh cod that we use in the tacos. It’s yummy. I know that I’m making you hungry.
And I’ve also heard about this Passport to California event you’re organizing. Please tell me a bit more about this.
It’s a campaign we’re doing this fall, from September 1st to November 30th, to really encourage our guests to explore all of the regions that are represented in our portfolio. We have 24 distinct AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) represented in our portfolio, currently. Guests get individual passports that look just like real passports. Inside we’ve created a little map of all the regions, so as they order a glass of wine from any of the regions, they get stamped for that region and earn points. They can also earn points for buying retail, putting cash on their Smart Card, or referring friends. They can earn awards throughout the competition – for example, for every 5 points you get a free glass of wine or for every 10 points you get a free appetizer. And the Grand Prize Winner will get some pretty sweet prizes at the end.
Like a vertical six-pack of our top of the line Tierra Roja Cabernet from 2003 to 2008 in a boxed wooden case, that is pretty spectacular. We are also awarding to our second place winner a guided, paired wine and food chef’s dinner for four. And I will be leading our third place winner through a customized at-the-bar tasting with Susan, which is basically a 5-course food and wine tasting, less of a full dinner but a wonderful way to nosh, and try 5 different wines from throughout the regions.
When does the event close?
November 30th is the last day. We’ll have a Gala Passport Party on the 3rd of December.
Sounds wonderful. Thank you so much for your time!
You’re welcome. I wish you luck in your continued evangelism about wine!
California Vintage Wine Bar, Restaurant and Retail Shop
Address: 77 Wyndham St. Central, Hong Kong
Telephone: (852) 2525 9808
Hours of Operation:
Mon-Sat: 11am-3am, Sun: 11am-12am
(Kitchen closes at 12am Sun-Thu, 1am Fri-Sat)