Courtney Grant Winston
Etched glass from Rat's
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Unconventional Wisdom

Jeffery Lindenmuth / April 2006

Wine Report Jeff Carlson, sommelier at Rat's, the quizzically named French restaurant that is part of the 35 acre not-for-profit Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey, knows how to sell out a wine event. In his experience, consumers favor gregarious tastings over formal affairs, global tours over single winery promotions, and small bites over elaborate courses. But even Carlson admits good timing doesn't hurt.

"At the time of our "Rat's Pinot Noir from Around the World" tasting, Sideways had just come out on DVD," says Carlson, referring to the Pinot-pushing Hollywood blockbuster. "The timing was impeccable, and the event sold out instantly." By this point in time, Carlson had thoroughly perfected his tableside course, Pinot Noir 101, after fielding dozens of requests for the wine from curious moviegoers. With a Pinot-heavy list including two dozen California offerings like coveted wines from Pisoni Vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands, another dozen from top Oregon wineries, and an impressive tally of over 60 red Burgundies peppered with Grand Crus, Rat's is in a good position to inform about the "it" grape.

Carlson doesn't delve into even one of 669 different AOCs of Burgundy but instead offers his concise explanation of how this expressive grape performs around the world. "I talk about the four major producing areas. On the one side of the spectrum is Burgundy, the home of Pinot Noir, yielding wines that are complex and earthier. On the other side is California, with riper flavors and bigger fruit. In the middle, you have New Zealand, which leans more toward California. And then you have Oregon, which leans more toward Burgundy," he explains.

For the purposes of the tasting, Carlson stuck to his lesson plan, contrasting two Burgundies--Les Pézerolles Premier Cru Hubert de Montille 1992 from Pommard and Les Procès Premier Cru Domaine Robert Arnoux 1999 from Nuits-Saint-Georges--with Lost Creek Vineyards Pinot Noir 2000 from H. Coturri & Sons and Emily's Cuvée Pinot Noir 2000 from Mueller, both from California. By the time the Oregon and New Zealand wines were tasted, the guests were chatting and drawing their own conclusions, just as Carlson had intended.

Unlike many restaurants using wine events to conjure business on slower weeknights, Rat's wine tastings unfold close to prime time--7 p.m.--on a Friday. For a price of about $100 per person, guests sample two-ounce pours of 10 different wines averaging $85 per bottle in price. By limiting the tasting to 24 participants, the restaurant uses exactly two bottles of each wine, making the events "mildly profitable."

Rather than dinner, communally seated tasters enjoy small bites and artisanal cheese from executive chef Peter Nowakoski. "We prefer to do shared things that are passed informally. I like a cheese plate, including blues, set in the middle, because with 10 wines on the table it's important to keep things from being too cluttered," says Nowakoski. "And we find when people are sharing food they naturally participate and open up a little bit more."

Many of the tasters follow up the Friday night tasting with dinner in one of Rat's five dining rooms or the more casual Kafe Kabul, which, along with the goodwill fostered, makes the wine events a grand success.

Nowakoski enjoys Burgundy wines paired with his earthier dishes, suggesting a Gevrey-Chambertin with his salmon and smoked portobello hash. He says the riper Pinot Noirs of California and Australasia stand up well to braised short ribs or mild game like roasted antelope chops with creamed spinach. And with Carlson's fondness for proffering Pinot Noir on the nightly tasting menu, thereby skipping white wine altogether, Nowakoski stands ready to accommodate with full-flavored fish like Hawaiian tuna.

The passion these two men share for food and wine spreads as a contagion through the entire staff, with educational staff tastings each Thursday. "One thing I feel strongly about is we do the tasting for the servers at 3 o'clock, and then I do the exact same tasting for the kitchen after service. In the past 18 months, the staff has tasted 20 percent of the list, which numbers well over 1,000 bottles," says Carlson, who doesn't spare his creativity when coming up with staff themes, like ‘Those Misunderstood Merlots.'

Considering its formidable heft, Carlson has also taken steps to make Rat's wine list more user-friendly. The 20 by-the-glass wines, like Burgess Merlot 2002 from Napa, for example, are available both by the glass ($9) and by the 15-ounce decanter ($26). Pricier selections like Opus One 1998 from Mondavi-Rothschild are also available by the half glass ($26). And for those who don't want to delve too deeply into the list, a convenient page of 75 Wines Under $75, brings together some of Rat's best values at a popular price point.

Rat's occasionally offers more traditional winemaker dinners, as well as high-ticket events like a joint uncorking of several 1945 first growth Bordeaux from the cellar. But it's the 24 seats for the casual tutored tastings that offer the most pleasure for the patrons and the staff of this French château with the confounding name. Other successful themes have included "The Adventures of the Rhône Ranger," including 10 Rhône varietal wines from France, California, Spain, and Australia. And with the "Life Is Uncertain, Never Skip Dessert" tasting, Carlson led guests through 10 dessert wines from around the world, paired with a component dessert tasting by pastry chef Peter Max Dierkes. Pairings included a roasted peach with lavender honey paired with Sauternes and a banana fritter pop with red hot caramel sauce accompanied by Inniskillin icewine from Canada.

The name Rat's is the inside joke of J. Seward Johnson Jr., the sculptor and philanthropist who conceived of a restaurant and sculpture garden resembling Monet's Giverny, yet sprouting from New Jersey. Admission to the garden is included in the cost of a meal, and a portion of the check benefits Grounds For Sculpture. It's a tribute to hospitable Ratty, the the affable muskrat in Kenneth Grahame's classic The Wind in the Willows, one of Johnson's favorite books. Ratty was keen on affirming friendship with the sharing of food and wine and conviviality, and Johnson's whimsical restaurant does its namesake proud.