Spruce offers tuition reimbursement for employees who pursue CMS certificates.
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Achieving Grapeness

Jeffery Lindenmuth - April 2011

Restaurants recently recognized by Michelin celebrate the virtues of their wine programs.

While an innovative wine program may not win you a coveted star in The Michelin Guide, which in 2011 added Chicago to its existing New York City and San Francisco editions for the United States, those famously anonymous Michelin inspectors do look closely at wine and its proper service, according Michelin North America spokesman Tate Hoxworth. Strictly speaking, Michelin stars take into account only what is on the plate--not what is in the glass. However, as any sommelier will agree, at the moment of bliss born of a perfect food and wine pairing, the pleasure is impossible to parse.

Restaurant wine programs do impact the number of les couverts (represented by the fork and spoon icons) awarded; notable wine programs are indicated with a grapes icon. Demonstrating the same progressive approach that finally brought them to the New World after a century of European exclusivity, Michelin considers service, creativity, and value, rather than sheer magnitude, when evaluating wine programs. "A wine symbol indicates that the staff of that particular restaurant has a good understanding of the wine list and can provide quality input to its selection and how they relate to the menu. This does not necessarily mean there is an enormous selection; rather, it could be a very focused or exceptional wine program featuring wines from a specific region, country, or style," says Hoxworth.

The wine program at San Francisco's Spruce restaurant, awarded its first Michelin star in 2011, is impressive by almost any measure, with over 2,200 selections and 30 wines served by the glass, earning it the grape icon for wine. It's the level of server knowledge, however, that truly sets it apart. According to Andrew Green, wine and spirits director/partner for Bacchus Management Group, which operates Spruce, Bacchus offers full tuition reimbursement for students of the Court of Master Sommeliers and Wine & Spirits Education Trust, enabling over 50 employees of Bacchus to earn CMS certificates, with about another 50 currently in pursuit. "I would say the number-one benefit we see is that our people have an uptick in confidence when they pass the exam. And that applies not to just wine, but translates to the whole experience. When they can stand there and speak confidently about wine, it puts the guest and the server at ease," explains Green.

Of special note on the Spruce wine list is a deep selection of over 100 German Rieslings, with six offered by the glass. According to Green, the pursuit of Riesling was a natural reaction to the homemade charcuterie of Spruce executive chef/partner Mark Sullivan: "Riesling is a relationship that grew slowly, starting at The Village Pub over 10 years ago. Over time our passion and investment have just grown."

The ongoing acquisition of private cellars, despite the economic downturn, has provided Spruce with a deep list of seminal California wines, like Beaulieu Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1966 ($240), Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast 1979 ($180), and Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1986 ($190). The interest in sampling historic California wines, even at such reasonable prices, has surprised Green. "I thought they would be window dressing wines, but I have been blown away at the number of people purchasing and inquiring about them. A lot of people realize that those wines aren't made anymore, with alcohols of 11.5, 12.2, 12.5 percent. People are nostalgic for those wines because those 1980s vintages, '84 to '87, were really special," says Green.

Compared to Spruce, the patrons at Dovetail on Manhattan's Upper West Side, awarded one Michelin star in 2011, are far removed from Wine Country. With that in mind, wine director Amanda Reade Sturgeon makes the case for the wines on her list with plenty of context, promoting some of the wine world's most progressive winemaker movements with special sections.

The Dovetail list offers great reading on Return to Terroir, a group of producers dedicated to pure and natural winemaking, especially biodynamic production; Club Trésors de Champagne, 26 grower-producers who collectively peer review their terroir-driven Champagnes; and Historic Vineyard Society, a newly formed group committed to preserving California's historic vineyards, including field blends. "I want to introduce people to wines they don't see all the time. I find a good way to do that is to create a list that is interesting for people to read," says Sturgeon, who focuses the list on family producers, echoing the preference for family farm products in the kitchen of chef/owner John Fraser.

A self-described "cider hoarder," Sturgeon has augmented her list with over a dozen ciders, poiré; (pear cider), and Pommeau (a fortified cider), including a tasting of ciders offered at $15. Another interesting deviation is a selection of 17 Sherries, served by the glass and as part of the tasting menu. Sturgeon suggests pairing a fino with Brussels sprouts salad with cauliflower, Manchego cheese, and Mangalica ham, or the briny salty notes of a Manzanilla with monkfish with piquillo peppers and a pilaf with mussels and calamari, reminiscent of paella.

At Sepia in Chicago, wine director Arthur Hon likes to assess diners by asking, "Are you adventurous?" Fortunately, given executive chef Andrew Zimmerman's interest in "less obvious" ingredients like blood pudding and cured pig's head, the response is usually a resounding "yes." Using the secure foothold of Austria's popular Grüner Veltliner, Hon encourages guests to reach for Austrian Gelber Muskateller, Rotor Veltliner, and Weissburgunder, along with aromatic whites from Germany, Greece, Spain, or Croatia.

In terms of red wines, Hon offers good samplings from France and Italy, while currently looking to expand the cool climate reds of Austria, Italian varietal wines from Oregon's Willamette Valley, and Pinot Noir from Germany and New York State. "I don't have a lot of fallback wines. I embrace the challenge to find wines that are different, unique, exotic, and exciting as a way to improve the overall experience," says Hon of his 200 selection list, with about 20 wines offered by the glass.

Despite a bounty of esoteric wines, the "CliffNotes from a wine-savvy staff" section of the list speaks to Sepia's welcoming, egalitarian approach, with a Giornata Aglianico Luna Matta Vineyard 2008 from Paso Robles ($69) coming highly recommended from Benjamin Rogers, a Sepia server/food runner. "Our idea is to build a little wine village and an atmosphere of appreciation. As part of that, we have a tasting of about one hour every week. It's mandatory for the servers, but it's open to everyone, whether you're a line cook or a dishwasher," says Hon. "It brings together the front of the house and the back, and reminds us that wine should be for everyone."

As far as Michelin is concerned, Sepia's inaugural star goes directly to Zimmerman and his modern takes on traditional ingredients. Zimmerman is the first to acknowledge, "I focus on creating a dish because that's what I'm good at. But wine interests me, and it's an indispensable part of the total dining experience, so I am always interested in what Arthur will bring to the table."