Where Have All the Malbecs Gone?

San Francisco, CA.  2007.

I was the Sommelier & General Manager at multi-year Wine Spectator list awarded, multi-year Michelin-starred Yabbies Coastal Kitchen on Polk St., between Vallejo & Green in the historic Russian Hill District – the restaurant where I actually met Cam for the first time as he was peddling his wares.  In our little bubble, you’d almost never know that the heart of a “Great Recession” was beating furiously a few miles outside of our city limits, nor would you have known that it was fast encroaching on our coastal living and working comforts.

Selling 1998 Domaine Dujac et Fils for, if memory serves me correctly, $250 a bottle from my list was quite common on a weeknight, moreso frequently when the convention circus came to town, and the business men of China or Japan were to be taken out by routinely seen Amex black cards, no expense spared.  In scratching my brain, I remember being told by a sales rep that we we’d been moving the top volume of that oft-unordered, on-the-list-for-show-type trophy wine (however, I’m uncertain to the validity of the compliment – sales folks will say almost anything to keep you buying).  Yet, this was still the furthest place from a Great Recession.

Whilst the outside world’s financial issues were in all the print headlines (yes, newspaper boxes were still filled on the curb, right outside our tiny establishment), and cable or local talking heads spoke about it near-hourly on every channel they had access to; analyzing charts and graphs, chyrons highlighting how bad it continued to get – and how much worse was in store, it didn’t feel quite real.

The servers were walking at the end of the nights with roughly $250 cash-in-hand on a slow night, some of the better evenings saw trips to the local bars or after-hours spots with a cool $600 cash in hand that essentially appeared out of thin air, and disappeared in the same fashion (special shout out to Bar Johnny and their chef’s homemade “nightmare” ketchup! – another story for another time).

Being the boss had its perks at the time too.  Not walking with cash, yet being the backbone behind the operation alongside our chef, we were asked along routinely, and the magically appearing and disappearing money took care of us as though it were in our own wallets.

Half-struggling around 11 am the next day was the beginning of my tasting appointments. A regular daily run of 3-4 sales reps that rotated in over the week would be coming for appointments that stretched into the 3 pm hour; tasting the most-insane, odd, rare, delicious, incredible wines the world had to offer.

“Have you ever tried DRC?  I happen to have a bottle open from my last appointment, and you’ll probably never have the chance to try something of this tier again outside an invited tasting,” said with a sly I-like-you-because-you-pay-my-bills-wink, wink-styled gesture.

Sure, what the hell, pour it up – even though it was honestly the smallest of splashes – NO ONE ever left the DRC or Grange behind for you to enjoy, those went home with the rep, never to be seen again, in the final days before the Coravin.

In the same slide-you-some-DRC meeting, I was continuing to get what seemed to be pressure mounting from all angles, and increasing in fervor and frequency, “Were you interested yet in trying a few of these Malbecs I have with me?”

No.  Hell no.  I’m still moving solid Bourg and Bordeaux, and for the uneducated guests, the Napas were still an easy go-to wine – pick your price, ask us to choose, and flex your finances for your dinner guests!

Part pride in my list, education, awards lining the walls through the hallway (I think the final one we received was framed and hung on the bathroom door as there simply wasn’t anymore space to hang it anywhere without sacrificing one from over a decade back), and part getting caught in the restaurant day-to-day, I was missing all the signs, staring me in the face.

TRY THE DAMN MALBECS! You’re going to need them very, very soon!

Almost overnight, Dujac stopped moving.  Heitz stopped moving.  What was a Latour?  Months worth of dust settled on the Screaming Eagle and Opus bottles over a single weekend (for the record, that’s Sunday & Monday in the restaurant world).  Display bottles all of a sudden needed to be wiped down regularly for presentation purposes where not a few weeks prior they were being pulled by our resident writer/poet Frank and 360° flipped in his bar-showman signature fashion, settling flawlessly every time with the label facing the customer, all while pulling out his wine key in a way that appeared magical while the customer’s eyes were distracted with his bottle acrobatics, myself in tow with a decanter and screen that was almost always necessary due to his bottle-flair shaking up all the damn sediment.

There were nights I wanted to KILL him for handling a bottle like that, but no one ever complained.  Like all great servers, he just had a way of making it all feel sort of…right? That’s not the correct word for it…there really isn’t a word for it, it’s something esoteric.

Anyways, back to Malbec.

Inquiring within our circle of local restaurant and bar associates, it seemed everyone was trafficking in this new Malbec wine relatively steadily.  They stated they were keeping their trophy wines on the list for some level of notoriety, but the needle was moving by way of Malbec by the glass and bottles, and had been for a few months at that time.  Mind you, these were not internationally decorated restaurants; more of the “People Love Us on Yelp!” or “Best of the Bay” street-level establishments – sadly, most of which are closed permanently today.  This city is ruthless for the food business long-term.

It was time to make a few calls and see what this whole Malbec craze was about.

The next few weeks were essentially marathon Malbec tastings, wines that’d land on the list, priced to move, anywhere from $32-68 in categories that had previously been dominated by movers in the $58-250 range.

Pride swallowed, I struck some deals, and it was off to the races.

It worked.  Malbec was moving.  Even our regulars were happy to see us dealing in Malbec.  As some of the the more expensive Cab bottles were moving out, they were being replaced by reserve Malbecs of a similar quality, at a fraction of the price.

In short order, Malbec was everywhere.  From the corner liquor stores to the list at Morton’s, you couldn’t get away from it.  And folks couldn’t get enough of it.  At a fraction of the price, folks were still willing to spend as much as before, but able to buy 2-3 times as much (or more), which seemed to be the new purchasing pattern moving forward.  I mean, why buy 1 bottle of decent Red Bordeaux when you could buy 3-4 bottles of the top-end reserve Argentinian Malbec and keep the juice flowing all night?  And for the same price all said and done?  It was a no brainer.

Then came a wave of historical inquiry.  Folks wanted Malbec from France.  They wanted to see what its home terroir expression was like.  They wanted to know how the old world handled the grape.  All of a sudden I was reaching out for Côt from Cahors (Malbec’s French name from the tiny Bordeaux region known for Malbec only or Malbec dominated wines).

Shortly thereafter, I was digging through portfolio books and making phone calls for Napa or Sonoma or anywhere in California that was producing a Malbec varietal wine.  Were there other areas of the globe with Malbec growths?  Were they drinkable?  What price are they asking?  I was determined to find out.

It was hard to keep the Argentinian stuff on the list without allowing folks to burn themselves out on this “new, delicious, inexpensive Cab replacement” by way of the Southern American stylings; guests have an inherent nature in restaurants of finding one thing they like/trust, then ordering it to death only to fully burnout and not be open to other offerings of the like as they have achieved mental burnout.  Thus begins a pattern of grouping all of the like as the same and saying they no longer eat/drink ‘X’ – see: “The Chicken Dish”, California-style Chardonnays, Merlot, Flat Iron Steak, Truffled anything, Sliders, the list really goes on…

The financial collapse had fully hit San Francisco.  Well, as fully as it would.  If it rained that winter, I’d swear it was drops made of Malbec.  It kept selling, showing up in corner stores, wine lists, and conversations, and at a feverishly growing rate; before-hours, during service, after-hours, after-after-hours.  There was even a restaurant – the name escapes me now – but rest assured, it too is closed permanently (go SF!), that dissolved any Cab options in favor of Malbec (and Shiraz).  We were in for tough times.

Not long after, our beloved newspaper boxes were removed from the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.  Regulars came in less regularly.  Some disappeared altogether.  Sales slowed.  My purchasing power began dwindling.  The list got shorter.  The Michelin stars weren’t coming for the next year’s guide.  The Spectator awards weren’t even worth submitting to with the state of the list and purchasing behaviors.  The convention crowds were fewer and further between.  I think the final 2 Dujac bottles were enjoyed after close one evening because it became clear no one was going to buy them anymore, and we weren’t long for the world.

But, it was all going to be ok, we, as a society, had Malbec.

As we projected, Yabbies didn’t last much longer.  Thankfully it was a quick death; no one likes the slow, painful passings, and we were able to indulge in the remaining fine Bourgogne before the doors closed for the final time.  A perk of shutting a restaurant for good was always the final night where it was your absolute duty to drink the bar down.  Already strong friendships were forged in steel those evenings.

It wasn’t much longer thereafter that the market steadily began recovering.  We all landed new jobs, some of us getting the others a position where we landed to try to keep the band together.  While no one was pulling in the astronomical cash that we had a few years prior, things were good, and we still had our Malbec.

Somewhere around 2011 however, it seemed harder and harder to find great Malbec.  While it was routine in my tastings from the reps still, nothing was shining.  Not one stood out.  This was an issue as I was running a South American restaurant at the time outside of the Castro District.  It was imperative to have one on our glass program, and tiers of quality for the bottle list.  Yet, the quality just continued to be absent from those I was tasting.

What the hell was going on?

Well, between common sense, and a few phone calls, my worst fears had been actualized.  Malbec burnout had occurred.  Not just within myself, or the general clientele, but the market as a whole.  Production was flooded with cheap Malbecs, Reserve Malbec weren’t regulated so well, thus the title was misused.  Even old staples weren’t as concentrated as they had been prior.  You could taste the fatigue of the vines in the juice itself.  It was, to us, seemingly another Merlot disaster.

In time the markets fully recovered.  Rare Bourg and Bordeaux were back in their places, I was another 3 or so restaurants further into my Michelin-star, Spectator-list career, the Coravin had changed the entire market and what you could offer on tasting menu pairings.  It was feeling a bit like the glory days of yore, just more modern.  And what the hell was Malbec?  No one would have that on any respectable list…

San Francisco, CA.  2020.

Clearly I no longer work in restaurants, otherwise I wouldn’t be speaking to you here and now.  My early meetings with Cam in ’07/08 had by chance of fate turned into a position working alongside him, his team, and his Lot program.  I’ve had the great luxury of learning and doing so much behind the scenes here, adding my wine education experience to an already talented team of visual and tech masters while interacting with customers on a daily basis.  There is never really a shortage of things to be done around these parts with our small, tight team.

And at the end of a long day, Malbec is the last thing on anyone’s mind, or in their glass.  Too many incredible Cabs that Napa and Sonoma can’t move due to overproduction.  Too many French rosés and reds that need to get off before Trump’s tariffs become fully actualized, or even worse.

Last year, there was a murmur, then quite the chatter of the next recession, projected to happen sometime this very year.  Something odd, yet familiar began occurring quickly: the Malbec inquiries shot through the roof.  Where you’d have a call a month asking if we’d have any Malbec in the near future, it was quickly becoming one a week…then one a day.

If the economy doesn’t nosedive again as predicted, will the Malbec calls slow or stop?  Is this variety of grape in an eternal dance, positioned opposite the Benjamins?  Is there not some happy medium to be found?  It would seem that Malbec is inherently tied to the stock market and its health stateside.  Things are up?  What the hell is a Malbec?  Things begin to fall? Oh! I remember Malbec, I love Malbec!

This isn’t the healthiest relationship for Malbec or American wine consumers.

Whilst you can find some Malbec on shelves today, the selections are quite limited.  Some shops may not have had much, if any at all recently, but that is changing slowly today as financial fears increase.  As it is, some of the beloved labels of the past are now just labels for large conglomerate wine holding companies that own the vast majority of US wine distribution, so you cannot count on their quality to hold a candle to the flame that is the memories of vintages in days gone by.  But alas, and thankfully, there are new, smaller producers emerging to take the place of those who made their names and fortunes in the past.

We ourselves have released a few small Lots of Malbec in the last few years, just to continue to temperature check the marketplace; good luck finding any as I’d safely assume it’s all been drunk by now.

We recently sourced an incredible Malbec (teaser alert!) from Argentina.  I cannot stress how much this harkens to the late 00s stylings of Malbec that launched a revolution in the food and dining world.  But it was not easy to find.  Certain wines we get our pick of the litter on (see: Cab, Sauv Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir – safe to assume major name varieties are in no short supply for quality), others are more of a hunt (see: Lagrein, Domestic Sangiovese, Grenache Blanc, the wines of Europe – be it distance or lack of plantings, when we finally find one of notable nature, it’s on, but until then, the hunt continues…).  Malbec seems a bit weird on this scale I’ve created as everyone has heard of it, many enjoy it and are familiar, there are domestic and international plantings, hell, a whole countries wine identity is based around it, so in theory it shouldn’t be hard to come by (bulk swill aside), yet it’s not always so easy to find the quality or finesse we’re looking for.  That is until the financial markets slow considerably.

I know our model is to buy on high-end surplus, and it worries me that while the markets are good, Malbec is nowhere to be found, but as soon as things begin to look bad, it magically appears almost in tandem with inquiries about if or when we’ll have some again.  It’s as though the vines root themselves and produce only in accord with drops in the Dow Jones.

Most assuredly, it will return, in droves, once the market plunges and stays down, and I know Malbec is alive and well – call it on a vacation – somewhere else on the planet.  I can only hope that the producers and distributors have learned from the past and will not flood the US Malbec market again if things begin circling the drain.  History tells me that is unlikely to happen.

All that said…

There is no reason that entry-level to high-end Malbecs cannot have a place on our wine lists, in our cellars, and our collections on a regular basis, unless we’ve all been sold on the events of the Judgment of Paris as though they were religious doctrine, and deviating as such would have us cast out of our tribes and clans into the land of Nod.

Admittedly, that was my thinking some years ago, and I was as incorrect as I was a part of the problem at that time.  But this time we can all change that.

Let’s be blatantly honest here, Napa isn’t what it was in its glory days.  A few more years of climate change and the already astronomically high alcohol content from Napa Cabs (which historically were more like Bordeaux in the 12-13% range, now riding 15.5-16.5%) will blow the corks out of the bottles.  You’ll have gone from waiting 20 years to drink vintages of the late 70s to absolutely needing to consume in 3-5 years before it rolls over and dies!

Add to it all the concerns that Bordeaux is now allowing previously unacceptable varietals to be legally planted and experimented with due to climate change, so if that doesn’t scare you (in context of science or Bordeaux profiles) not much will.

But wait.  Malbec hasn’t changed.  The core of its plantings still reside in the high Argentinian altitudes.  There still Malbec to be found in California.  Cahors still exists.  I now feel the only way to find a balance in this is to as ourselves: Where have all the Malbecs gone?

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