Masterlist Theatre

Jeffery Lindenmuth / July 2007

Sommeliers air their strategies, tips, and choices for assembling wine collections sure to engage guests as deftly as they suit the menu.

For a wine director, staring into the blank page of a new restaurant wine list carries with it all the possibilities, and intimidation, of a stark white artist's canvas. Will the final work be playful or thought provoking? Embraced by the masses or adored by the critics? Part of a body of work or a singular statement? In a perusal of wine lists of recently opened and soon-to-open restaurants, these artists and auteurs flaunt their ever expanding palette in hues of red, white, and pink, as we search for vinous movements afoot.

One of the most anticipated openings of the fall for wine lovers is Bar Boulud, opposite Lincoln Center in New York City, where wine will lead the way, under the direction of chef Daniel Boulud's award laden accomplice Daniel Johnnes. "Daniel," says Johnnes, "is a great wine lover and one of the few chefs who takes a serious interest and gets deeply involved in pairing and discussing menus. It's a dream come true for us and for the general public to have great wine and great food in a casual atmosphere. It's a wine bar, a place where you can get bistro food, charcuterie, and great cheese with your wine."

Here, the Daniels will be on equal footing, with pairings that start with the suggestion of a great wine followed by its accompanying menu offerings. But the list doesn't rely on an encyclopedic selection or scores of wines by the glass. "Wines by the glass is an important category, and I'll have five or six white and five or six reds. I've never been a big believer in 100 wines by the glass. It's the rotation that makes a committed program. Like all of our restaurants, we plan on having a lot of regulars, and rotating the wines keeps it exciting," says Johnnes.

The list will indulge Johnnes' love of Burgundy and the Rhône, as well as emphasize his fascination with lesser known wines. "You may find wines from Savoy, a hidden Vin de Pays, or grapes like Mencia. It's the sort of place where people will learn something," he says. With the charcuterie of Parisian master Giles Verot, Johnnes says he'll be pairing the rich rillettes with fruit-forward Beaujolais, reds from Chinon and Jura, and Côtes du Rhône Villages.

At Comme Ça, chef David Myers' brasserie follow-up to Sona, where he serves modern French cuisine with global influences, that's opening in late summer in West Hollywood, wine director Mark Men­doza is crafting a more casual list to match, aiming for about 200 wines on the list and 20 wines by the glass. "The numbers we'll be doing are much larger than at Sona. And we'll serve lunch, so people don't want an 84 page wine list. These are all things to consider," says Mendoza, wryly adding that Sona's tome of 2,000 wines was an easier job to tackle than the list of 200 he's editing now.

The list will be a French and American duopoly, with a focus on the reds of Southwest France and Pinot Noir from both nations. "That's all I need. With those two countries I can cover all the bases," says Mendoza. Wines from Alsace and the Loire Valley, along with unoaked California Chardonnay, will lead the way among the whites, with prices ranging from $20 to several hundred.

For chef Elizabeth Falkner and wine director John Mark of Citizen Cake, the September opening of their second San Fran­cisco restaurant, Orson, allows physical room to expand their passion for wine. "It's a really big space, much different than Citizen Cake," says Falkner. "It's an old warehouse. We're adding additional floors and using 10,000 square feet, including building a two-story wine tower. We'll have some of that space also for charcuterie, which requires the same humidity, darkness, and temperature."

It's a dream come true for Mark, who currently jostles wine in a closet shared with the pastry chefs. Mark's fondness for Austrian and Loire Valley wines, already evident on the Citizen Cake list, will persist at Orson. "They are regions whose wines work really well with the food. They tend to be soft, subtle, pretty wines, with minimal oakiness. I've never liked oaky monstrous wines. Growing up working at Zuni Café, it's always been important to me that the wine work with the food." With the addition of library wines and large format bottles, Mark says his list will quickly grow into the new space.

Falkner, with her notable foundation as a pastry chef, is unimpressed by the ability of most dessert wines to pair with dessert. "I often don't think that they go well with dessert. I think most sweet wines are better with cheese and savory," says Falkner, who joins Mark in calling for oloroso Sherry, Madeira, and Barolo Chinato, a subtly bitter edged digestif wine, with the final course. They recently paired a dessert of strawberry/agar-agar noodles with strawberry confit and asparagus foam with a sparkling apéritif wine from the Jura made from Gamay and Ploussard.

When chef/restaurateur Dean Fearing opens in September in the new Ritz-Carlton Dallas, his le tout Texas following will be presented a wine list 18 months in the making. Nearly as soon as the deal was signed, Fearing enlisted John Rector, executive vice president of Sigel's Fine Wines and Great Spirits, to begin building an inventory of restaurant-worthy wines.

"Fearing and I have known each other a long time, and he came to me early on wanting to discuss the philosophy of the list. We knew it would be a while until they hired the wine director, and that meant missed opportunities. We wanted to determine things he wanted to have and acquire those more than a year ahead, to give the list interest and drive, to realize Dean's vision for the list," says Rector.

With Rector acting as his agent, Fearing assembled a half dozen vintages of first-growth Bordeaux, including Lafite, Latour, and Mouton-Rothschild, acquired before the price hiking 2005 release. There are also multiple vintages of coveted California wines like Peter Michael, Lewis, and Ken Wright. "We didn't want to open and have all 2003 Cabernet and 2005 Chardonnay," says Rector. By buying from primary sources over the 18 months, the collection dodged the questionable provenance and market topping prices that often accompany a hurried wine list. Paul Botamer will act as wine director upon opening.

For Jake Kokemor, wine director for John Besh's Restaurant August and Besh Steak, Besh's recently opened New Orleans venture La Provence (see "Standing Strong," page 76) defined its own wine list. "With the name La Provence, you know what the food is going to be like, so we made the entire list nothing but Rhône and Provençal wines, including a full assortment of rosés from Bandol and Tavel," says Kokemor. For "people who don't want to try something new," he offers a trio of varietal wines, one made from Cabernet Sauvignon, one Merlot, one Pinot Noir.

With Besh's herb-roasted milk-fed chicken with garden vegetables, lardons, and wild mushrooms Kokemor reaches for a versatile Viognier from Condrieu. "M. Chapoutier Condrieu 2005 is a nice match for the garden vegetables and the chicken, and it can also go to bat with the wild mushrooms and the smoky lardons," says Kokemor. However, the dish that intrigues him the most is a mélange including some challenging wine partners--a warm salad of Belle River crawfish served with artichokes, tarragon, shallots, and tomatoes. "My first pairing would be the Brunier Domaine du Vieux Télégraph Blanc, a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for its sharp acidity and backbone, with some rounded textures that match up well with a warm salad of crawfish. However, another option that's less typical is a red like the Domaine de la Solitude Côtes du Rhône, light enough in body not to damage the flavors in the salad, with a silty and rounded texture that serves to balance out the feeling on the palate," he says.

More evidence of regionalism on the rise: At Borough Food & Drink, opened in June in Manhattan, the name similarly cues the wine list, if not with wines from Brooklyn and Queens, at least from New York State. "We are trying to source as many New York wines as possible," says Amy Orze­chowski, assistant general manager. "It involves a lot of tasting, and of the 75 wines on the list, I'll have about 15 from New York." Among Orzechowski's favorite finds are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from Long Island, including those from well-known wineries Wölffer Estate and Bedell Cellars, as well as Sherwood House Vineyards and Pindar Vineyards, which she calls "truly spectacular." The house-smoked local beef brisket is a favorite pairing with Pindar Pythagoras, a nonvintage blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec.

Even with experience working the lists at China Grill, Asia de Cuba, and Hudson Cafeteria, exploring the Finger Lakes and Long Island regions was a new adventure for Orzechowski. "With every opening you learn something, and doing this opening and creating the wine menu have really opened my eyes to the number and quality of New York wineries. I think the customers will be pleased," she gleams.