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California Wines Pour Into Las Vegas

Now that upscale dining is replacing all-you-can- eat buffets, vintners are eager to satisfy Sin City's newfound thirst.

March 15, 2004|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — When Leslie Miller went to work for Geyser Peak Winery last year, Job 1 was to get to Las Vegas.

The sales executive set out to turn the Sonoma Valley winemaker into a major player in the glitzy gambling mecca. Las Vegas, she knew, simply needed to be "a top-priority market."

The reason: The roughly 35 million people who visit Sin City each year have helped Nevada move to No. 4 in per-capita wine consumption in the U.S., according to wine sales tracker Impact Databank.

With upmarket eateries becoming more commonplace than all-you-can-eat buffets, "wine is now part of the Las Vegas experience," said Glenn Schaeffer, president of Mandalay Resort Group, whose hotels keep more than 60,000 bottles of wine in stock, a supply equivalent to the entire annual production of many California wineries. And today, California producers supply 85% of Mandalay's inventory.

California winemakers didn't always see Las Vegas restaurant sales as key to growth.

Andrew Bradbury of Mandalay Bay's Aureole recalled the reception he received when the restaurant -- which keeps wine in a tower four stories tall from which bottles are retrieved by a wine steward on a mechanical hoist -- opened five years ago: He got the "cold shoulder" from Napa, Sonoma and all the other grape-laden valleys in California.

"We tried to get all the cult and boutique wines out of California," the sommelier said. "They would not even talk to us."

Even when Las Vegas restaurateurs made pilgrimages to the wine country, the gentleman farmers there treated them like country bumpkins.

"They used to laugh at us when we went to San Francisco for tastings," said Kevin Vogt, who as master sommelier at Delmonico Steakhouse at the Venetian Resort uncorks 125 bottles of wine a day.

"Nobody took us seriously because we were Vegas."

And now? "They're begging to get on our list."

Cheap prime rib dinners and free well drinks might still be Las Vegas hallmarks, but fine wine is too.

For producers, Vegas is "the place you have to be," said Ted Hall, chairman of Oakville-based Robert Mondavi Corp., California's largest publicly traded winery, with $450 million in annual sales.

Last month, Hall and 90 wine-country colleagues rented a ballroom at the Four Seasons hotel to personally peddle their Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. Their goal: to tickle the palates of restaurateurs such as Mark Szczepanski, manager of Shintaro, the Bellagio resort's high-end Japanese restaurant.

Two years ago, Szczepanski said, wine accounted for just 15% of his sales. Now, with more premium vintages in his cellar, sales are approaching 22% and he wants to stock more, particularly Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Champagne.

"Our food is so hard to match wines with," Szczepanski said. "It is great to see such a selection here."

Once a winery makes the cut, high-volume accounts usually follow.

Michael Honig, president of Honig Vineyard & Winery in Rutherford, says he sells about 12,000 bottles, or just over 3% of his production, in Las Vegas, and nearly all of that to the casino-resorts along the Strip.

"In other markets it can take an entire state for me to sell 1,000 cases," Honig said.

And despite what the city's tourism board advertises, when it comes to wine, what happens in Las Vegas doesn't always stay in Las Vegas.

Visitors, said Pete Przybylinski, an executive with Duckhorn Wine Co. in St. Helena, "will ask for our wine when they go back home."

It was a no-brainer for Miller, then, to want Geyser Peak to get into the game.

Working out of Healdsburg, Miller knew she needed the help of someone who understood the Vegas market. She hired local wine broker Ralph Leone, who has a reputation for winning big wine accounts.

"We sat down and worked out a strategy," Miller said, "who we were going to go after and what wines we were going to sell."

Geyser Peak's approach was twofold: Get on the approved lists for the town's abundant convention and banquet business -- where a single event can require 100 cases or more -- and get its most expensive wines on as many restaurant menus as possible.

Leone arranged a tasting for Omar Gutierrez, an old Vegas hand who has worked at several resorts and now runs the House of Blues Foundation Room dining club at the top of the Mandalay Bay casino.

Gutierrez liked what he sampled. Today he lists seven Geyser Peak reserve wines on his menu, ranging from an $8 Sauvignon Blanc to an $85 vintage.

The brand is one of Gutierrez's top three sellers, and no other vintner has more wines on his list.

"They are quality wines that are priced at a point where they can really move," Gutierrez said, adding that the Foundation Room sells about 250 bottles a month.

Geyser Peak has also landed some important banquet business. Its Cabernet is the primary pour at the MGM Grand, an account that soaked up 600 cases of wine in December alone.

Though Miller won't provide specifics for competitive reasons, she said the winery doubled its business to "thousands of cases" in Las Vegas since she joined the company. She doesn't plan to ease up anytime soon.

In Las Vegas, Miller said, "the potential is huge."

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