Going Native

Jeffery Lindenmuth - October 2005

Whether French, Italian, or Spanish, adventurous European-style restaurants are complementing their menus with indigenous wine choices.

Everything Old World is new again. Perhaps weary of globe-trotting from New Zealand to South Africa to Uruguay in search of buzzworthy wines, some American wine directors and chefs have rededicated themselves to unilateral wine lists from the likes of Italy, France, or Spain. But rather than dwell on the prestige wines from these vine-covered countries, their lists regale with small producers, explore nascent wine regions, and reaffirm that the perfect vinous complement to a nation's cuisine is often as obvious as the nearest hillside.

Tony Maws, chef/owner of Craigie Street Bistrot in Cambridge, Massachusetts, takes the inspiration for his all-French wine list from the bistros modernes he encountered in Paris. "I would find these bistros with this phenomenal food. They didn't pay tons of money for flowers. They had only one wineglass for both red and for white. And they focused on nook and cranny wines, great little winemakers, not everything Premier Cru. I think you can say ‘value' because even something that is $50 there tastes like $80."

To unearth French bargains in far-off Boston, Maws says it's important for him to work with like-minded importers, those who share his interest in discovering small producers and "pound the turf themselves." With just 42 seats and a list of about 100 wine selections, Maws also exploits Craigie Street's small size to his advantage. "For a larger restaurant it becomes most important to never run out of anything. Being small enables me to put on wines available in smaller quantities."

Maws also keeps the list fresh--quite literally--by sticking to current vintages. "We don't offer a lot of bottle age. Even though I do like drinking things that are more mature, younger brighter wines with lots of acidity are generally better food wines. I find affordability off the beaten path and also in younger wines."

The Craigie Street Bistrot list features dozens of bottles under $40, with Maws' favorite bargains of the moment coming in the form of cru wines of Beaujolais and rosé from Languedoc. He also preserves the French bistro tradition of offering pot de vin, with a petit pour (1/3 bottle) priced at $9 and a grand (2/3 bottle) priced at $15. "I think I spend more time finding the wines to put in the pot than on the rest of the list. They have to be tasty and gulpable, so I love finding a small dude with a great Bourgogne Blanc," he says.

While Maws holds no objections to the wines of Spain, Austria, or America for that matter, all are conspicuously absent from his list. "One of the great attractions of American wines for Americans is they can read the labels. I have the luxury that I've got them in the door. If I put a few American wines on that list, I would sell only American wines. But I've got them. Let's educate them." To that end, Maws says his staff is "ferociously educated," prepared with wine suggestions to suit any budget and taste.

Belinda Chang, wine director for Osteria Via Stato, a Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) restaurant in Chicago, relies on her exclusively Italian list to foster customer interaction. "With the prix-fixe menu format there is not a lot of food menu consultation, so we really build on the wine consultation," says Chang, whose fun-loving list includes headings like The South Rules!, Sexy Reds of the Veneto, Italian Wonder Women (a section celebrating women winemakers), and 40 Wines Under $40.

Her "Just Bring Me Wine" program, offering a tasting of three wines at three price points ($15, $28, and $50), proved so popular that Chang had to downplay the offering. "When we first started it, we had the hostesses open the list to that page, and it instantly became 85 percent of our wine sales. It was really upsetting no one was getting into my list, so now we've eased it off to about 35 percent. It does show that people just want it to be easy," says Chang.

When Chang realized some staff members had never even opened a bottle of wine, she embarked on a page-by-page staff education that includes two hours of tutelage weekly. "We also do role playing, pretending to be the person who only likes white Zinfandel. Last week we played wine Jeopardy." And there are written tests. "I post the scores," chuckles Chang. "I'm a mean teacher."

But Chang has the numbers to back up her strict pedagogy. Spirits are scuttled to the low single digits as a percent of beverage sales. The average bottle sale is $75. And Osteria Via Stato boasts among the highest wine sales in the LEYE group, with checks that average 35 percent wine sales. "You can't do too much wine education. It involves a bit of expense and a lot of time, but we've learned how strongly it can impact sales," she says.

Chang kicks off the red wine portion of her list on Italy's heel with the Primitivo of Puglia, followed by Aglianico from Basilicata and the lusty island reds of Sicily and Sardinia. "All these wines are super-friendly from a price standpoint, and they're wines that Americans ‘get.' We like red with good extract, volume, and body," advises Chang. "Most people never make it past the first page."

Luis Bollo, executive chef/partner of the sibling Spanish restaurants Ibiza and Meigas, located in New Haven and Norwalk, Connecticut, respectively, has seen changing attitudes regarding Spanish wines. "A few years ago the people didn't know too much, and they would bring in their bottle of French or American wine. But they're not doing that anymore. The people in America know much more about Spanish wine. Now they want to have a complete adventure in Spanish gastronomy, and they love our Spanish wine list."

Ignacio Blanco, partner at Meigas, is a native of Galicia and has a natural affinity for the whites of Rías Baixas, but he speaks with amazement about upcoming Spanish winemakers and regions. "The best Spanish white I've had in years is a white from Priorat, made with Pedro Ximénez," says Blanco, referring in awe to the grape usually reserved for Sherry. "It comes from Viñedos de Ithaca and is named Odysseus, like the Greek hero. They also make a rosado [a rosé] that's unbelievable."

During the week, Meigas offers a popular seven-course tapas tasting menu ($65), which means versatile wines are in order. "The menu isn't too formal, so we're not too formal about pairing wines," says Blanco. "I would rather serve red with the fish and give someone what they like. Right now the reds from the DOs of Toro, Bierzo, and Valencia are very good. Ten years ago I would never have believed this could be true." And while his list offers plenty of legendary Spanish reds priced from $250 to $800, Blanco, as if his name were his calling, delights in promoting Spanish white wines with Bollo's inventive tapas, like pulpo (steamed octopus with potato foam, smoked Spanish paprika, and olive oil), or boquerones (marinated fresh anchovies with grilled watermelon and Sherry vinegar). "We have to hand sell the whites, and people are very surprised to discover that an Albariño or white Rioja is wonderful with our food," he says.

Juan C. Gonzalez, restaurant manager and wine director at Ibiza, offers a list of about 100 Spanish wines ranging from basic bottlings for around $40 to classics like Vega Sicilia Unico 1990 ($650) and Pingus 1999 ($700). Gonzalez concedes Rioja still rules with name recognition, but rarely does he let guests off so easily. "I go out of my way to introduce them to something new, to offer Albariño to someone who drinks Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. I think the greatest values are coming from Jumilla and more people now know Ribera del Duero and Toro. It's wonderful that there's now enough Spanish wine available to make a good list and to be very selective," he says.