Wines Lists: Coming Attractions

Jeffery Lindenmuth - July/August 2005

Today when self-expressive sommeliers and chefs conspire to tailor a new wine list, the rule is that there are no rules. Only distinctiveness rules.

Investigating wine programs at recently opened and soon-to-open restaurants, I found as many approaches to successful wine lists as there are list makers—from the micromanagers to the treasure hunters, even from those more laissez-faire. These anticipated new wine programs manage to reflect the philosophy of the sommelier while also catering to the craft of the chef, particularly when they are one and the same person.

In Chicago chef/owner Michael Taus of Zealous has partnered with Nader Salti to open Saltaus, a more casual restaurant with a dining room seating 40 and an upstairs lounge for 50. "So many of us went to culinary school and have worked at four-star restaurants. We've been brainwashed that we have to do only four-star concepts. Well, I want to do fun," says Taus of his small plate, Zen-vibe playground, which offers global dim sum and full-size entrées. "Even Land Rover builds a more reasonable car now. It's not about being trendy. We're smart businesspeople too."

In contrast to Zealous' 750 wine selections, Saltaus offers 60 to 70 different wines, along with many half bottles and about 14 wines by the glass. "People are trying to find something in their price range, and they're spending less on wine, so I look for something from a smaller region with real value," says Taus, whose favorite quarry includes Riesling from Germany, Austria, and Spain, Tempranillo and Albariño from Spain, and Viognier from Australia.

In the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago, Brian Duncan plans to open his third Bin 36 property by Labor Day. With an emphasis on small plates and offering 36 wines by the glass, as well as the trademark wine flights, which include three or four two-and-a-half-ounce pours of varietal wines, the latest Bin will cater to Duncan's local 'hood. "While Lincoln Park is somewhat preppier, Bucktown is really edgy and progressive, so the clubs and restaurants have to reflect that," says Duncan.

The smaller Bucktown list will be limited to about 400 bottles and will showcase value and emerging wine regions, like Spain, South Africa, and Argentina. "I would never back away from a wine because there are too many consonants. Give me Moschofilero. Give me Grüner Veltliner," challenges Duncan, who relies on common sense and customer interaction to make building his wine list sound like a leisurely pleasure.

"What we've been doing wrong is having critics and other people influence what should be a hospitable interaction. My bottle list has an opportunity to be shaped by any guest. I begin it broad and let it shape itself by listening to what customers want," says Duncan.

Another Windy City sommelier with a witty innovative take on wine is Osteria Via Stato's Belinda Chang, who makes her all-Italian 400 label list customer-friendly by offering flights matched to the menu at three different price points. Customers who opt to say, "Just bring me wine" are served three four-ounce pours to match each of three courses for either $15, $28, or $50. The Riedel glasses are hatchmarked at the four-ounce level, an homage Chang explains, to Bottega del Vino, the great wine bar of Verona, which now has a branch in New York City. The concept has proven so appealing that close to 85 percent of the customers are putting down the list and putting themselves into Chang's hands. "Italian wines are hard to understand, and this takes the intimidation out of it," Chang says. "We'll just guarantee everything is great." The brown butcher paper the list is printed on also helps to casualize it. When she first introduced the program, most of the customers were choosing the $15 selection; now, about 65 percent have moved to the middle range. At the low end, a selection could be a Sicilian white like Cusumano "Alcamo" 2002, while in the upper reaches she might go over the top with an Angelo Gaya "Rossj Bas" 2000 Chardonnay from Piedmont. "We lose a little money on the $50 flight," Chang admits.

When Osteria first opened in November, Chang recalled that partner Rich Melman wanted her to do a very simple list with about 10 labels. But she didn't feel that took advantage of her expertise or that it was a sufficient complement to chef/partner Rick Tramonto's authentic Italian menu. So she expanded the list "to appeal to customers ranging from those who know nothing to people who have thousands of bottles" and at the same time added the fun element of "Just bring me wine."

In June the prolific Fred Dexheimer launched his third wine list in just 15 months at BLT Prime, the encore to Manhattan chef Laurent Tourondel's BLT Steak and BLT Fish. With 26 different proteins on the menu and an eclectic clientele, Dexheimer's latest list promises to be a combination of his previous successes, totaling 400 to 500 wines. Most interesting is Dexheimer's organization of such a large list. "Rather than by region, I'm using some grape varieties and some descriptive headings like "Light, Crisp, and Fresh" or "Spicy, Earthy, and Exotic." These work especially well for the esoteric wines of, say, Greece and Portugal and Spain, that may not get much interest otherwise," says Dexheimer.

His ontological obsession continues within each wine category, with Bordeaux wines being listed geographically from north to south, while another category might be grouped by country or vintage, if that's deemed more informative.

While Dexheimer says his "goofy wines" like Albariño and Pigato have done well at BLT Fish, he has also come to grips with offering "gimme wines," like a selection of 35 New World Chardonnays, mostly California favorites like Flowers, Kistler, and Shafer. "So often, all sommeliers want to do is give people something they've never seen before," he says, "but now that I've been around, I realize you need at least 20 percent gimmes, things that people understand and recognize."

At Alto, chef/owner Scott Conant's new restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, sommelier Eric Zillier has assembled a rather old-school list at a 21st century pace. He maintains a modest six reds and six whites by the glass, and almost none of those fashionable half bottles, but has opened the doors with impressively deep vintages of Bordeaux and select California wines. First-growth Bordeaux dominates page upon page of the list, crowned by 23 vintages of Château Latour, dating back to 1928 ($3,000). Even pricier selections like Château Pétrus 1945 ($7,500) abound. "Years ago you didn't open with a list like this. The only way to get such a kind was to be open for a really long time and acquire the wines over decades," says Zillier, previously of Veritas. "But with the laws that changed in the 1990s, we're able to use the restaurant to offer the wines of one of the partners, who is a serious private collector." Evidently the unnamed partner is also fond of California wines like Stony Hill Chardonnay from Napa, with 14 vintages dating back to 1981.

Just as Conant walks the Italian-Austrian culinary border with pumpernickel ravioli with porcini filling and house-made sauerkraut, and perch lightly seared with speck, Zillier offers Italian expressions of Teutonic grapes like Mueller-Thurgau and Gewürztraminer from Alto-Adige, the northern region that is Alto's namesake. "It's been really surprising how many people get the name reference and want to try wines from Alto-Adige and the north of Italy," says Zillier. "I'm really pleased with that."

Chef E. Michael Reidt put his passion, and star power, to work in personally assembling the wine list for his new Santa Barbara "French-Brazilian" restaurant Sevilla, bagging coveted California wines from Sine Qua Non, DuMOL, and Bryant Family Vineyard. "It's a lot of legwork, contacting wineries directly, approaching them with the attitude that ‘you want to be on this list.' But when you communicate the idea that you respect quality in your own work, and in theirs, they open up to you," says Reidt, who sources his cellar with the same personal touch as his kitchen. Catching up with him the first week of his opening, he professed to having just written out checks to 76 different food and beverage suppliers.

With 35 different selections, Pinot Noir occupies twice as much real estate as any other grape variety on Sevilla's list. The Burgundian grape is both a personal passion and a perfect complement to Reidt's cuisine. "My food is lighter, without a ton of garlic or pepper and spice. I believe you should taste what you're eating, and Pinot works well with my approach," says Reidt. His passion for Pinot Noir coincides with the wine zeitgeist—what we might call the Sideways effect, as both Duncan and Dexheimer agree that Pinot's popularity is soaring following the motion picture's release.

At the newly opened Wynn Las Vegas, Danielle Price, director of wine, makes bold statements with her restaurant lists, which all told include 2,500 different selections. "We wanted to create unique dining in every property, so I wanted the wine to be as differentiated as the cuisine and the atmosphere," says Price.

At Tableau, located in the VIP area, Price focuses on small-production boutique American wineries. "American wines are the driving force on any list in America. I think there are many exceptional wines out there and our customers enjoy ordering them and drinking them. I might receive only six bottles from some of these wineries, so we adjust and reprint the list at a rapid speed," she says.

While the Tableau list is not exclusively American, the list at Bartolotta Ristorante Di Mare is strictly Italian. "Paul Bartolotta, the chef, shares the same passion for Italian food that I have for wine, so I thought if we get behind this idea we can sell it together," says Price. With 550 wines in place on the list, which is organized by white and red progressing from north to south, there is still room to grow it to 1,000 selections, according to Price. "We'll be growing the program the right way," she adds. "Slowly and wisely."