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Why Sushi Restaurants Are Paying More Attention to Wine

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Wine editor Levi Dalton talks to sommeliers from New York and Austin about the trend of sushi restaurants bulking up their wine lists.

[The sushi bar at Sushi Nakazawa]
[The sushi bar at Sushi Nakazawa]
Nick Solares

In New York City, there has been a flurry of recent activity by sushi restaurants looking to expand their wine lists. Garrett Smith, previously a sommelier at Restaurant Daniel, has begun in a new role with Sushi Nakazawa. The owners of that restaurant have signaled that they want to "beef up" their wine program, and are bringing Smith in to make those changes. Shuko recently hired a sommelier who had been working at The NoMad. In addition, Sushi Seki is actively looking for a sommelier as they plan to open a third restaurant. And Brushstroke, with its attendant Ichimura, has also been looking to add to its sommelier team.

Wine has in the past often struggled to find attention in sushi restaurants, playing a supporting role to sake and beer, and not occupying the center stage amongst beverages in the way that it long has in French or Italian venues. And Asian restaurants in general have often been the provenance of big brand wines and supermarket level selections. But has this changed somewhat more recently? Have high end sushi restaurants fully crossed over from being sushi spots to being fine dining restaurants, with the necessary wine list accoutrements that that implies?

Sam Ehrlich, who has been the wine buyer of the Blue Ribbon Group for the past three years, and currently oversees the wine at four Blue Ribbon Sushi establishments in New York, suggests that customers bring to sushi restaurants the drinking habits they are accustomed to from other kinds of restaurants. He also sees different drinking trends in different parts of the city. Ehrlich explains:

At the 58th Street Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill we draw a crowd that is the most different from any of the other Blue Ribbon Sushi restaurants: well-heeled, used to fine dining and drinking great wine of a certain type on a regular basis. Champagne, white & red Burgundy and their New World counterparts, classic German and Austrian whites all do well there. We sell a good deal of wine at our Orchard Street location as well, but like uptown in its way, it tends to draw a crowd that leans to very particular categories: a ton of Sauvignon Blanc of all manner and size and a lot of Grüner Veltliner. Also, lean Spanish and Italian whites. I think that this is indicative of the crowd there in general: younger, interested in food and wine but looking for reliable categories that don't break the bank.

June Rodil, the current Beverage Director for McGuire Moorman Hospitality, who previously did a pioneering beverage program for sushi at Uchi Restaurant in Austin, Texas, underscores Ehrlich’s point that people are inclined to drink what they are used to when they dine on raw fish and sometimes that is wine.

[The menu] is all in Japanese. And if people are already taking the leap on food, sometimes they want to hold onto something that they know. Like, they are, "Oh, I am going to be super adventurous with this weird food and do the omakase, and give me anything’ when it comes to food. Because that is why they walked in the door. But then it is "I will take the Cabernet"…There is a lot of things: you don’t know who your server is, everybody is bringing you food, there are like weird things happening, you are supposed to eat with your hands, and it is like, "What am I supposed to do?" and "I want a Sauvignon Blanc."

Rodil suggests that when restaurants line up recognizable wine categories next to sake choices and Asian beers that may be less familiar, guests can take some comfort in ordering wine. "It is understanding your guest."

Ehrlich’s experience suggests that consumers who think of sushi as Japanese food may be more likely to pair sake with their meal, while those who think of sushi as a high end dining experience, akin to the other highly rated Western restaurants in the city, are somewhat more likely to select wine. Ehrlich says:

To sum this up, I'm not sure that wine is about to become a go-to for sushi for diners who don't already drink wine regularly — sake and beer still outsells wine at all of our Japanese restaurants. But in those guests who do drink wine regularly, I do see the desire not to settle for schlock but rather an eagerness to seek out something excellent.

Sushi restaurants in New York appear to be responding with increased attention to wine and deeper wine lists on offer.


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