Inside the Wine Cellar at Passionfish

The five bottles that define one of America's most affordable, and adventurous, wine lists.

A bottle of 2009 Domaine de la Pépière “Cuvée Trois,” a special bottling from Muscadet legend Marc Ollivier, hovers at around $30 at a retail store. To find it on a wine list for $57, as it’s priced at Passionfish, a seafood-focused restaurant in Pacific Grove, California, would be considered a pretty reasonable markup. The difference between Passionfish and virtually any other restaurant, however, is that at Passionfish, the bottle in question is actually a magnum.

It’s not a typo or an inventory error; low markups on wine have always been a central part of the restaurant’s business model. In the words of longtime beverage director Jannae Lizza, who has worked there for over two decades, “From the beginning, that was always the plan, to have the same price points [on wine] that you’d expect to find at retail.”

Still, it raises the question of why—and more interestingly, how—Passionfish has maintained such a charitable approach over the years. Ultimately, it comes down to a series of trade-offs, beginning with narrowing the selection of glassware (the restaurant relies solely on one style of Bordeaux glass) and eliminating a formal wine staff in favor of educating servers.

Notably, the list also lacks the kind of far-ranging vintage depth that has come to define many of today’s top wine programs. Whereas those restaurants will invest in cellaring wine, and factor those costs into their pricing, the margins at Passionfish are tighter, rendering such storage impossible.

“If I buy it, it’s for sale immediately,” Lizza explains. “But at our price points, you’re probably going to order that second bottle, so we definitely sell more wine this way.”

What the list might lack in depth, however, it more than compensates for with the breadth and diversity of its selections. One major benefit of Passionfish’s generous pricing policy is that it facilitates the art of the hand-sell, incentivizing otherwise risk-averse guests to take a chance on unfamiliar wines. So while it readily embraces classics, such as benchmark Burgundy and Champagne—both hallmarks of Passionfish’s program—it also champions the esoteric and obscure.

“Pricing at retail gives me the excuse to offer you something you might not be willing to try at another restaurant,” she explains. “Nobody’s going to pay $70 for a St. Laurent from California, or a skin-contact white from a hybrid grape in Vermont, but they’ll buy it for $37.”

That $37 will also buy you a wine like Graham Tatomer’s 2014 Sylvaner, made from a white grape native to Alsace and Germany, but sourced from the Sisquoc vineyard in California’s Santa Maria Valley. Or, listed at $47, is Sam Vinciullo’s 2016 “Red/White,” an unorthodox blend of merlot and semillon from Australia’s Margaret River. Likewise, at just $42 for the 2014 vintage, is the exceedingly rare old-vines chasselas bottling from cult favorite St. Joseph producer, Pierre Gonon.

Normally, fringe expressions like these would risk intimidating certain diners. At Passionfish, however, the philosophy of radical affordability ultimately translates to one of inclusiveness. Rather than isolate less knowledgeable drinkers, this approach, backed by low markups, offers a powerful reminder that so much of the fun in wine is its ability to coax us out of our comfort zones. As Lizza puts it, “That’s when the sparks start flying.”

To her mind, that sentiment also applies to geeky collectors and industry pros who regularly show up from across the Bay Area, lured by the promise of drinking rare gems on the cheap. While she observes that “many guests come in ‘hot’ with the intention to drink as much [highly-allocated cult wine like] Clos Rougeard or Collier as they can,” they’re missing the whole point of what she’s accomplished.

“I’m really pushing for people to go out on a limb,” Lizza says, whether that limb is an alternative to the usual pinot grigio, or a look beyond the endless pursuit of Instagrammable trophy wines to something relatively new. “I guess I’m an instigator that way.”

Passionfish in Five Bottles

Olivier Cousin Cabernet Franc "Pur Breton"

A perennial favorite from natural wine hero Olivier Cousin, this benchmark cabernet franc is sourced from horse-plowed vines in Anjou (although, due to clashes with the local wine body, it’s declassified to the simple vin de France designation). Despite being “a little rough around the edges, and a little funky,” according to Lizza, the wine satisfies all the necessary criteria as an everyday pour. “The Cousin is always available, always pleasing and tastes just like it should—a wine made by a guy and his horse.”

  • Price: $37
  • Vintage: 2014

Sam Vinciullo Warner Glen "Red/White"

“You obviously have to find the right guest to suggest a merlot-semillon blend,” Lizza admits, but she adds, “if anyone can sell something off the beaten path, we can.” One of several wines on her list designed to showcase Australia’s new wave, this unsulfured blend from winemaker Sam Vinciullo reveals some of the “minimal interventionist” influence of Sicilian natural wine legend Frank Cornelissen, with whom Vinciullo has worked. “Fun, fresh, filled with sprightly blood orange spray and sour cherries and that waxy semillon texture,” says Lizza of this bottling, which she serves slightly chilled.

  • Price: $47
  • Vintage: 2016

Champagne Flavien Nowack "La Fontinette" Extra Brut

One of the region’s rising stars, grower-producer Flavien Nowack is quickly making a name for himself in Champagne thanks to the single-varietal expressions of several individual parcels he has converted to organic farming in Vallée de la Marne. Sourced from the ‘La Fontinette’ vineyard and based entirely upon the 2012 vintage, this 100 percent pinot meunier bottling recently caught Lizza’s eye. “I’ve always been a sucker for meunier…” she says. “I’m always excited to find a new producer or bottling and Nowack’s definitely blew our minds last year.” In her words, his version “is vinous and precise, a perfect partner for an entire meal.”

  • Price: $82
  • Vintage: NV

Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon "Monte Bello"

Dutifully repping the “classic” side of the Passionfish list, Ridge’s iconic expression of the Monte Bello vineyard in Santa Cruz has become synonymous with greatness in California wine. “We feel it’s important to honor and represent the wine history we are forming locally,” Lizza explains. “The Monte Bello vineyard is mystical and the wine that is produced from it can only taste like it came from this particular place.” Although some might hesitate to drink such a young vintage, she notes that “at any age, Monte Bello offers you a warm wild mountain smile and happy American oak hug that no other wine can give you.”

  • Price: $207
  • Vintage: 2014

Iapetus "Tectonic"

A skin-contact white made in Vermont from La Crescent, a cold-hardy hybrid grape invented by the University of Minnesota? It’s safe to say that wine rarely gets much weirder than this. In the glass, Lizza describes it as “a peach Hi-Chew candy crossed with a Creamsicle, plus a hint of tannin to boot.” The combination might not be for everyone, but as Lizza is quick to mention, “the role of the list has always been to offer something to experiment with.”

  • Price: $37
  • Vintage: 2014

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