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Central's David Hale Talks Pricey Whites, Old Madeira

Central may be a bistro, but between its Michel Richard affiliation and the fact that sister restaurant Citronelle is currently closed, wine director David Hale still needs to keep some very exclusive wines on hand for the high rollers that go there.

The most expensive wine that Hale has poured for a guest is the Le Montrachet Grand Cru, Domaine Lamy-Pillot, Burgundy, France 2001. The wine is priced at $1,000 a bottle. "The wine is really opulent and rich, but with great acidity," he said. "It's one of the most famous and exclusive white wines in the world. We don't see many of them." At Citronelle, Hale used to get a yearly allocation of five bottles.

"It's just one of the holy grails of white wine," he said. "When you get it on the table and see people's faces and see them enjoying it, it's really gratifying."

Other big ticket wines Hale has poured include a champagne, the 1998 Pol Roger, Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill Brut, priced at $550, and the 1978 Pommard, 1er Cru "Les Grands Epenots", Domaine Jean-Michel Ganoux, a red burgundy also priced at $550. "1978 is a very famous year for burgundy, and people want to try it," said Hale, who sells about a bottle a month of that wine.

On Hale's first night at CItronelle, he sold a 1995 Chateau Cheval Blanc for $1,400. "It's my first table, I'm nervous and the guy called me over and was like 'How's the '95?' I said, 'It's delicious' and he said, 'Ok, we'll have that.'"

"With that group of gentlemen, there were five or six guys, doing a little bit of grandstanding, or dare I say it, measuring," he said. "I think it's our job to balance that [grandstanding] with giving someone something they're going to enjoy drinking and be excited about."

Most of Central's wine sales are bottle driven, with the average bottle sales in the $65-$85 range. "It has a lot to do with quantity here," he said. "A private party might go through seven $100 bottles."

Part of Hale's job is to read the table to find out the kind of price range and experience level of the guest. He says about half of his high roller customers are really educated about wine. "I have one guy who's a Napa cab guy, so he might drop $400 on a Napa Valley cabernet, but he's not going to spend $100 on a wine from Spain or a wine from Italy." A lot of his regulars are wine collectors. "Some of them have better cellars in their houses than I do here," he said. He particularly enjoys seeing the knowledge base of his regulars, high rollers or not, grow as they come into the restaurant. He also enjoys it when his regulars will ask him what's new and unique at the restaurant. "You can get something kind of geeky on the table," he said.

Often a customer's client's taste dictates the meal, Hale said. A regular might give Hale the heads up that he's bringing someone in who likes Italian reds. "That's fun for the guest because they know the regular has gone to trouble of making their taste preferences known ," he said.

Many high rollers at Citronelle take advantage of the restaurant's corkage policy, which allows customers to pay a fee and bring in two bottles as long as they aren't on the list. "A lot of regulars bring them in, and they've been extremely generous with them," he said. "You don't the chance to drink a 65-year-old wine every day." He remembers one customer brought in a bottle of Madeira wine from 1879. "I remember because he came in and had three bottles, and he asked if I minded and showed me the bottle. I didn't mind," he said.

So are these wines worth all that money? "I think with these wines, it's a vice — some people like cars, some people like expensive wines. Is it worth the price? If it's worth it to you, then it's worth it," he said.

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David Hale [Photo: Central]

Central

1001 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington DC, DC 20004 Visit Website

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