The Wine's the Thing
Jeffery Lindenmuth / October 2010
An accomplished sommelier realizes a dream restaurant wherein the pour takes precedence over the plate.
Departing from San Francisco, a trip to wine country typically means heading north on I-80 before veering toward Napa's heralded Highway 29, dotted with prestigious California wineries like Beaulieu Vineyard, Grgich Hills Estate, St. Clement Vineyards, and Chateau Montelena. However, in April 2009, chef Michael Mina and Mina Group wine director Rajat Parr proposed a detour: a visit to Burgundy via RN74, named for France's Route Nationale 74, and its wine list that meanders through the heart of Burgundy's Côte d'Or, navigating villages like Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée, Pommard, and Meursault, much like its asphalt namesake.
Parr conceived and wrote the business plan for RN74 in 2001. "This was my dream forever. I wanted a sommelier team and to have a wine-driven restaurant, where the wine comes first and the food follows, set in an upbeat European design. Actually, it's a little bigger than I imagined," says Parr of the 60 seat bar and lounge and 75 seat dining room, adorned in dark woods and warm leather by New York City design firm AvroKO.
Burgundy contributes the bulk of the ambitious 2,500 bottle list, which earned RN74 a coveted 2010 Wine Spectator Grand Award, the magazine's highest award for restaurant wine lists. The vast Burgundy selection ranges from affordable esoterica--a Ramonet Bourgogne Aligoté 2007 ($50), crafted from the region's other white grape--to the revered--a Domaine de la Romanée Conti Romanée Conti Grand Cru 1962 ($15,545). Many options are priced under $200, contributing to an average bottle sale of about $150.
Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley, and California are also well represented, although Parr, a winemaker himself (see "The Tastemakers," Food Arts, April 2010, page 29), imposes strict standards for the wines of his West Coast home. "We don't put anything over 14 percent alcohol on the list. That's just what I decided it should be," he explains. "We want to feature fresher California-style wines--the sort of wines that I like to make and drink." Among the bottles to join the list are Wind Gap Trousseau Gris Fannuchi Sonoma Coast 2009 ($44), Kutch Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2008 ($72), Neyers Merlot Napa Valley 2006 ($90), and an impressive selection of Chardonnays from Au Bon Climat.
Wilf Jaeger, a private wine collector and venture capitalist, grants RN74 access to his extensive cellars on a consignment basis, resulting in a new restaurant wine list that can rival many a venerable old standard in its vintage depth of wines from the 1970s and '80s. The mechanics of wine buying are in the hands of head sommelier Eric Railsback, who, in addition to harvesting Jaeger's cellars, is constantly searching to source wines directly from French wineries, private cellars, importing companies, and auctions.
For Railsback, having his wine director work, and live, on-site at the restaurant's Millennium Tower address creates a unique disposition for RN74: "Rajat is very into food. And with wine as a focal point, food is very important here. However, I think RN74 is notably different for having someone in the front of the house drive it, someone who sees the customer and gets immediate feedback."
Railsback and fellow sommeliers Chad Zeigler, Christie Dufault, and Joseph Cantalino follow Parr's lead in dressing the part--in jeans and tennis shoes. Gone is the pretense of wine service; what remains is what matters--Riedel crystal glassware, a dedicated dishwasher, perfect serving temperature. They also put a friendly face on their Burgundian tome with a front page, seasonally changing "market list," highlighting 100 wines priced under $100 per bottle. In addition, about 60 wines are on offer by the glass and half glass, including a few under $10 as well as several rare and older wines. "We use the by-the-glass program to get people excited to try something they might not normally be able to taste or afford. We've poured a DRC by the glass for $92. Every night, I'll put something vintage on," says Railsback. The large selection of food-friendly by-the-glass wines also creates the potential for impromptu flights. Rather than pairing a single Chenin Blanc with the fresh flavors of hamachi crudo with cucumber, watermelon, green peppercorns, and shiso, Railsback prefers to proffer a complete Loire Valley tour, covering Montlouis, Vouvray, and Savennières.
If you're going to enlist a great chef for a wine restaurant, it may be wise to find one who is a chef de caves as well as cuisine. On his résumé, executive chef Jason Berthold includes the title of winemaker for Courier, his own label, alongside that of former sous chef of The French Laundry. "I approach cooking and winemaking in a similar fashion, using feel and sight and senses rather than technical analysis," says Berthold, who offers a menu of modern interpretations of regional French cuisine. "You could call the menu hyperseasonal because it changes several times a month. But I also like to say that we use supermarket ingredients, in the sense that they are all recognizable, in their name and on the plate. We're not about transforming things."
At a glance, some of Berthold's dishes--a roasted chicken with figs and cipollini, or grilled Romano beans with olive oil and sea salt--can appear so simple that something might be missing. That something is wine. "By delivering purity and simplicity we are leaving little gaps and holes for other elements, and those appear in the wines," explains Berthold. With the beans, Berthold prefers Sauvignon Blanc, especially Graville Lacoste Graves Blanc 2008, noting how the wine's citrus notes complement the Sicilian lemon-flavored olive oil. In pairing the roasted chicken, Berthold says, "I love what the combination of onions and fruit in this dish do with wine, the way it plays with the savory and fruity characteristics of the wine," suggesting the dish is the perfect playground for a rollicking Kutch 2008 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, with lush ripe fruit and barrel spice that make it a guest favorite.
The wine bar menu, offering shared plates priced from $9 to $18, embraces the same wine-friendly philosophy, with the added bonus of a specific wine pairing for each item. The summer flavors of heirloom tomato flatbread with grilled corn and shishito peppers are partnered with the juicy red fruit and bright acid of Foillard Morgan Cuvée Corcelette 2008, a Beaujolais from the cru Morgon, while the fresh sea taste of grilled Monterey Bay sardines with the acidic jolt of capers and aged balsamic vinegar finds its match in Domaine Wachau "Terassen" Grüner Veltliner 2007 from Austria.
Berthold's team-player approach sits well with wine lovers and winemakers, like Wells Guthrie, co-owner of Copain Wines in Healdsburg, who appreciates the empathy for wine that Berthold brings to the table. "Not only are the wines at RN74 presented perfectly, but the food is flavorful, fresh, and not overpowering," says Guthrie, who enjoys his Anderson Valley Pinot Noir with Berthold's roasted chicken.
RN74 also offers creative wine programming, like a month-long summer tribute to Riesling--inspired by Paul Grieco's recent fervor for Riesling at New York City's Terroir Tribeca and in the tradition of Richard Dean's (now at Campton Place, San Francisco) summer Riesling festivals of years ago at The Mark hotel on the Upper East Side--offering a selection of 35 international Rieslings as well as Riesling-friendly small plates. "For me, it's the best white grape in the world," enthuses Parr. Among the 10 Rieslings RN74 offered by the glass (starting at $6) were representations from California, Austria, Germany and Oregon, as well as a 1999 vintage Lorentz Gustave Altenberg Grand Cru from Alsace ($20).
For Parr, this Burgundian enclave in San Francisco's financial district is both the culmination of his ambitious wine lists for Mina Group and a lifelong dream. For fans of food and wine, RN74 simply represents an opportunity to take a road less traveled, where sommeliers lead the way.