El butterball

Pub date June 7, 2006


Marin is not my favorite county it is the police state, bristling with bored and predatory officers of the law, that must be traversed to reach the wine country but it does have its glories. Among these is Sabor of Spain (www.saborofspain.com) in San Rafael, a kind of Spanish Table of the North Bay selling various foodstuffs, ceramics, glassware, and a stupendous selection of Spanish wines. Last summer Sabor sprouted a tapas restaurant, Vinoteca, in an adjoining space that has the Barcelona-modern look of glass, chrome, dark wood, stone, and mirrors. The restaurant offers by-the-glass service of many of the bottlings for sale next door at Sabor, and if you want to spring for a whole bottle, you’ll pay about an $18 markup over retail. This doesn’t mean much at the lower end of the scale, but it does mean that a magnificent $75 Priorat can be had in the restaurant for under $100 instead of the $150 or more you’d likely pay at a place that uses the more typical, and lucrative, method of tripling the wholesale price.

(Historical note: The dot-com-era restaurant Elroy’s followed a similar fixed-markup policy for bottles of wine, but the numbers were even more dramatically skewed in the customers’ favor. The restaurant’s markup was only $10, and that was over cost, and for pricier wines this was such a good deal better than in any wine shop that people were said to be coming to the restaurant just to buy bottles of wine to take home. Distributors and winemakers eventually rained on this parade, and, perhaps not coincidentally, Elroy’s is no more.)

Despite the extensive selection of Spanish wines, the staff at Sabor rather glumly confided to me that the restaurant’s patrons overwhelmingly prefer familiar varietals chardonnay and merlot, to name a pair of the all-too-usual suspects to wines made from such difficult-to-pronounce Spanish grapes as tempranillo or verdejo in such oddly named Spanish regions as Rueda or R??as Baixas. In a predictable response, Spanish winemakers are now turning out chardonnays and merlots with those names conspicuous on the labels for what I can only hope is export to us. At least some of the chardonnay vines, I was reassured, were brought to Spain from Burgundy and presumably would give their Iberian offshoots some Burgundian character, though whether that character will play in California, land of the butterball chardonnay, remains to be seen, alas.