Wine lists


I was recently in New York, where lunches at two well-turned-out restaurants brought a question to my mind about wine-by-the-glass service. Should waiters bring the glass of wine to your table or should they bring the bottle to the table, show you the bottle and then pour the wine? Put to the vote, I don’t see how anybody could not opt for the latter procedure.

My flight arrived at La Guardia at 12:35 on Sunday. I had not checked a bag, so I was able to rush outside, grab a cab and beat my friends to a 1:15 reservation at Bar Boulud, on Broadway directly across from Lincoln Center. Talk about a great location. Pre-matinee, the place was packed, and from what I have read, that’s the case with before and after theater at night or anytime. Bar Boulud is one constellation in the galaxy of establishments in New York (and around the world) belonging to French chef Daniel Boulud. It’s called a casual bistro, but instead of going in the direction of Keith McNally with Balthasar in SoHo and Pastis in the Meatpacking District, that is, reproducing down to the ultimate nostalgic detail an old-timey bistro or brasserie in Paris — or our fantasy of such — Boulud called in Thomas Schlesser, the James Beard Award-winning restaurant designer, to create a sleek, contemporary vaulted room that’s cool in its modernist allure yet warm at heart.

The menu features a wide range of traditional French “country” and bistro fare, with lots of charcuterie, which the kitchen, under chef Damian Sansonetti, turns out in stylish versions. The wine list, overseen by sommelier Michael Madrigale (and Daniel Johnnes, wine director for all of Boulud’s restaurants and what a tremendous job, in all senses, that must be), is phenomenal; I mean, truly, it’s the sort of deep and detailed wine list one might expect at a high-end temple of French cuisine, yet it includes many reasonable choices too, though by reasonable I mean under $100. This is New York. The list focuses on Burgundy and the Rhone Valley, with excursions into the wine regions of other countries that use Burgundian and Rhone grape varieties and then a section of “heart-throb” wines of other sorts. The list is interesting, inventive, intriguing, inviting and in the rarefied cases very expensive, so one wisely turns to the wine-by-the-glass offerings.

I forget what my friends ate at Bar Boulud — they had the $29 four-course prix-fixe — but I do remember that they each had a glass of the charming Domaine Triennes Sainte Fleur Viognier 2009 ($12 for a glass; $45 for a bottle). With my “country breakfast” of fried eggs, house-made sage sausage, buttermilk biscuit and tomato confit ($18), I chose a glass of the Domaine Tissot Cremant du Jura Brut ($15; $59), a completely delightful, floral and slightly austere sparkling wine made from chardonnay, pinor noir, trousseau and poulsard grapes.

Our waiter, whose only flaw was being too chatty, brought the bottles to the table, showed us the labels and then poured the wines. We knew exactly what we were getting.

A few days later, I had lunch with friends on West 57th at Brasserie 8 1/2, an elegant restaurant reached by descending a wide spiral staircase theatrically carpeted in red-orange. Our waiter, whose only flaw was that he was goofy and distracted and therefore distracting to us, followed the standard line; he took our drink orders — from the surprisingly ordinary, corporate wine list — and returned in a few minutes bearing a glass of red and a glass of white. Who knew what was in those glasses?

I ordered the Domaine Le Croix St Laurent Sancerre 2010 ($12; a bottle is $52), and, yes, the wine was certainly made from sauvignon blanc grapes in the dry, limestone-loaded style of the eastern Loire Valley — it was quite nice, and I enjoyed it, especially with my sea urchin risotto and skate with lentils (from the three-course prix fixe, $34); executive chef is Julian Alonzo — but who’s to tell if a cheaper wine had not been substituted? No, please understand that I’m not accusing Brasserie 8 1/2 of chicanery; I’m just using that occasion to mention that in the system by which wines-by-the-glass are delivered to the table instead of poured at the table the possibility for abuse exists.

As Americans, we’re all about transparency, especially at this point in history; we’ve been hoodwinked plenty, not to mention keelhauled and financially waterboarded, in the past decade, and we want to know what we’re paying for. Wouldn’t it make sense for the sake of good customer relationships and openness and honesty to have waiters bring the bottle of wine out to the diner and pour the wine into the glass at the table instead of merely escorting to the table the now anonymous glass of wine which has apparently been reluctantly released from some mysterious Guantánamo of wine coolers in the back of the restaurant?

Image of Bar Boulud from sociallysuperlative.com; image of Brasserie 8 1/2 by Paul Goguen from bloomberg.com.

July 14 being Bastille Day, we went out to eat steak frites. Completely logical, mais non? Somewhat illogically, the restaurant which we went to, while having a French chef and serving mainly Euro/bistro-style fare, features almost all California wines on its list. The chef told me, in an interview at the beginning of this year, that he would like to have French wines on the list but that he couldn’t afford them. The thought-cloud hovering over my head pleaded, “Let me do your list!” Anyway, that’s not the point.

We ordered our steak frites and two glasses of Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel 2008. Our waiter was a cheery, eager young woman, what my mother would have called “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” an expression that always puzzled me when I was a child; I got the bright-eyed part, but bushy-tailed? Was she talking about squirrels? The waiter brought the glasses of wine, and here’s where the problem started. Now I haven’t tasted a Lyttons Spring Zinfandel in a while, but over the years I have tasted and consumed many examples of the zinfandel wines, including Lytton Springs, that emerge from the Ridge winery. After a few sniffs and sips of this wine, I was convinced that, unless Paul Draper and the team at Ridge have completely changed the philosophy and methodology of their decades-old practice, this was not a Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel. What I was smelling and tasting seemed to be the super-ripe snap and spicy toasty overlay of an over-oaked merlot or cabernet sauvigon.

Of course I couldn’t prove my theory because, as happens in about 95 percent of the cases when one orders wine by the glass in a restaurant, we didn’t see the bottle from which the wine was poured. I could have asked the waiter to bring us the bottle but we have to remember that it’s usually not the waiter who pours the glass of wine, it’s the bartender. So the waiter could have been completely innocent.

So, we chowed down on our delicious, medium-rare strip steaks and terrific frites and so forth and mutely drank the wine. The waiter came back to the table after a while and asked if we would like another glass, and LL said yes she would and I said no, not for me, but I reminded her that we were drinking the Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel, and she was like, well, yeah, duh, of course. Still, the waiter misunderstood and brought two glasses anyway, and I thought, swell, O.K., this will give me a chance to compare the wines, but before I could say, whoop-de-doo — and I have never seen this before in a restaurant but perhaps I live a protected life — she took the old glasses and poured the remaining wine in them into the new glasses of wine. So much for comparison.

Here’s the point.

Anything that happens to the wine that diners order in a restaurant, whether full bottle or by-the-glass, should happen in front of the customer. A bottle of wine, it should go without saying, should be opened at the table. Is the wine a precious bottle that the wine steward or sommelier thinks he or she should taste to see if it’s up to standard? All right, fine, but only with the permission of the diner and done at the table. Does an older wine need to be decanted? Sure, go ahead, but decant the wine at the table or at a nearby waiters’ station in view of the patron. And if wine is ordered by the glass, the waiter or wine steward should bring the bottle to the table and pour the glasses right there in front of the customers.

Such transparency can only promote the sense of goodwill and trust that form the bedrock of excellent service.

Eric Asimov had an interesting column in The New York Times yesterday and a follow-up on his blog about how few restaurants in San Francisco, located at the nexus of several of California’s best vineyard regions, focus exclusively or even half-heartedly on California wines, and this in a city where many restaurants take locavorism to Puritanical levels. The argument is often made, with some accuracy, that California’s typical rich, ripe high-alcohol red wines and over-oaked white wines do not make good matches with food and that the more elegant and restrained European wines, for example, Bordeaux and Burgundy and German rieslings, are better suited to the dining experience.

What fascinates me is the idea of a local wine list, a notion which, philosophically, seems pretty attractive. After all, when you’re at a restaurant in Burgundy, all the wines on the list will be Burgundies; if you’re in Bordeaux, the restaurant wine lists will carry all Bordeaux wines. That’s basically the situation in any wine region. I ate in many restaurants in Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz back in July, and not a single wine list offered anything but German wines and mainly of those areas. One could call this approach parochial, but the food and wine heritage of a region grows and evolves together over centuries. To experience that entwining of place, history and taste is one reason why we travel to foreign parts.

Outside of wine regions, of course, restaurants have to depend of the wines that are available in their cities through the local distributors. And while wine is produced in all the contiguous 48 states, I’m sorry to say, but I must, that in many of those states you would not want restaurants to feature local wine. On the other hand, it boggles my mind that so few restaurants in New York City feature any wines from the wine regions that lay closest to them, that is, Long Island, Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes. Restaurants, of course, are dependent on the selections carried by local wholesale distributors, and they must choose wines for their cellars based on need, style of cuisine, customer preference, price, storage capacity and so on.

In other words, a purely local or regional wine list may be a fine ideal, but depending on where the restaurant is, it can also require a lot of work of the strenuously wonky sort.

Thinking about this topic allowed me to contemplate what sort of list I would conjure for a restaurant, so here it is, my notion of an ideal wine list. Half of these wines, by the way, should also be available by the glass and perhaps one-third of them in half-bottles. As you will see, I prefer a short, purposeful wine list to one that tries to have All The Big Names and All The Kinds of Wine.

>Five sparkling wines, i.e., two Champagnes, a sparkling wine from California, a Crement de Bourgogne and a Prosecco.

>Two dry roses, say Prieure de Montezargues, from Tavel, and Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, Los Carneros.

>A dry Sherry.

>Fifteen white wines: three chardonnays; three sauvignon blancs; three rieslings; a Rhone-style white (not necessarily from the Rhone); a gruner veltliner; a pinot blanc or pinot gris; three whites from Italian and Spanish, like vermentino and albarino. The chardonnays could be, perhaps, a Bourgogne Blanc or Macon-Vire, a Chablis Premier Cru and an example from California; sauvignon blancs could be represented by the Loire Valley, California and New Zealand; rieslings by Germany, Washington state and Australia.

>Fifteen red wines: O.K., three cabernet or cabernet-based wines (Bordeaux, California, perhaps Chile); three pinot noirs (two Burgundies at different prices and one from California or Oregon); a merlot from Long Island or Washington state; a cabernet franc from Chinon; a cru Beaujolais; a malbec from Argentina; a grenache (garnacha) from Spain; a Cotes-du-Rhone Cairanne or Rastau; a (non-blockbuster) zinfandel, like the Ridge Three Valleys: a Barbara d’Asti or Dolcetto from Piedmont; an aglianico from Campania.

>Five dessert wines, including a 10-year-old Tawny Port, a Beaume-de-Venise, an ice wine from Ontario, and, uh, two more.

There you have it, 43 wines, easily manageable, easy to change as vintages come and go or supplies dwindle, easy to work with on the computer and printer. Each wine should be accompanied on the list by a brief description (not cute or pseudo-hip, I hate that crap) and a recommendation as to some dishes on the menu it might match; the list should be user-friendly without being condescending. The idea is to keep 30 of the wines priced at $50 and under, 10 between $50 and $75, and three special occasion wines that go up to $100. It’s very important that people not open a wine list to be stunned with horror and dismay at rows of wines they could not afford without taking out a second (or third or fourth) mortgage or to be presented with a telephone book’s worth of daunting choices. Having only 43 wines, or say up to 50, on the list provides plenty of diversity for the diner and plenty of flexibility for the wine manager.

If I really were developing this list for a restaurant, I would hunt first for wines from small, family-owned and operated properties. I would try to have half of the wines come from estates run on some degree of sustainable and organic principles. I would want to offer diners wines of individuality but not so unusual that eating out was like going to school. I mean, it’s supposed to be about pleasure, not guilt.

Image of the vintage railroad wine list from A Taste of Wine and is copyright by fw190a8.

(Lord have mercy, readers, this is my 400th post on BTYH since the launch in December, 2006!)

2006? That’s right, and I was a little hesitant to order a Gavi from ’06, which in the lifespan of most Gavi wines is ancient history. The reputation of a producer, however, often tells us a lot about a wine’s potential quality.

The cortese grape, found principally in Piedmont, is one in which reasonable people put not a huge amount of hope but which in the right hands is capable of making a clean, refreshing, spicy white wine. This example from Pio Cesare surprised me by being not only wonderfully fresh, clean and attractive, but rich and ripe with scents and flavors of lemon in all its aspects buoyed by touches of pear and green apple. Enlivened by bright acidity and a scintillating mineral element, the wine felt compulsively drinkable, so much so that our table ordered a second bottle, which proved to be even better than the first. The second bottle added more minerals to the package, some nutty and floral hints and an unexpected wash of a rooty, moss-like tea and a flavor of green plum. The current release for this wine in 2007, but there seems to be plenty of the ’06 in the market. Very Good+ and just a hair away from Excellent. This was $34 on a restaurant wine list. Suggested retail is $19. I have seen it on the Internet priced from a compelling $17 to an outlandish $25.

Imported by Maisons Marques & Domaines, Oakland, Cal.

My linkedin profile.

Facing the wine list
Thursday night, I’m sitting down to dinner — which we will get to soon — and my cell phone rings. LL says, “O.K., I’m looking at this wine list, and I need some advice.”

By way of explanation, she is the director of a university art museum, and a couple times a year she travels to conferences in other cities. Some years ago, I think she was in Santa Fe, I got the first of these calls. She tells me what kind of restaurant she’s in, what she and friends and colleagues have ordered, narrows the price range and then reads me the choices she’s considering. And I, as quickly as one can sort out the information in about a minute, lend my opinion.

She was in L.A. this week, and, as it happened, was having dinner with her son, who was also in town on business.

“It’s a French restaurant,” she said. ” — is having cassoulet and I’m having pork shank. I’m thinking Southern Rhone.” And you, readers, are thinking, Gee, doesn’t sound as if she needs any help.

There were, however, the issues of labels and prices, so LL read the names of several Southern Rhone wines, a Gigondas, a Vacqueyras and so on, notable producers, old vines, tempting indeed, but at prices ranging from $55 to $82, more than she wanted to pay.

“There’s a page of ‘House Favorites,’” she said, “let me look at that. The prices are around $35. Here’s a Saumur,” and she read the label and the producer.

“That sounds good,” I said. “A cabernet franc should be a good match with the cassoulet and pork shank.”

“All right,” she said. “Bye.”

She called Friday morning. “The wine was great.”

And all through the wonders of modern technology!

Image from theage.com.au.

I recently received a link to the website of a new restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. This is T.W. Food, an amalgam of such vibrant dedication, preciousness and (it looks like) sheer genius that it makes one dizzy just to read about it. The restaurant is the brain-child of Tim Wiechmann, the chef, and his wife Bronwyn, the manager. They are young (33 and 29) and seem to be twfood1_01.jpg energetic, gifted and ferociously sincere. The premise is ingredients and wines that range from simple organic to bio-dynamic and the creation of dishes that reflect synergy among ingredients, locality and wine. The philosophy (or slogan) is “From Seed to Plate,” with a focus on “sustainable and fairly treated ingredients.” The skeptic in me, I’m almost ashamed to admit, says, “How unfairly can you treat a potato.” (O.K., that’s unfair; the menu looks fabulous.)

The menu changes every day, at least a portion of the menu, and is supposed to be posted to the website (twfoodrestaurant) by 10 a.m. The offerings are limited: five starters and a selection of oysters; six entrees and three six-course “chef decides” tasting menus, one vegetarian; three desserts and a selection of cheeses. Prices range from $10 to $15 for starters, $25 to $30 for entrees (tasting menus are $55 — one is vegetarian — or $85 with wine), and $8 for dessert.

Check out the website to see what the intriguing food is like — the menu is heavy on the earnest descriptive style of the 1990s — because what I really want to focus on is the unique wine policy.

Now we’ve all dined in restaurants that field impressive or even oppressive wine lists that sport page after page of chardonnays from all over the world and cabernet sauvignon-based wines from all the world with an emphasis on the Big Names and Labels anointed by ratings of 90 and above from The Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate. Such profusion makes it difficult to chose a wine for dinner, even for the experienced though perhaps not wealthy patron.

The wine list at T.W. Food begins from completely the opposite direction, offering one sparkling wine, eight white wines, 11 reds, seven desserts wines (six by the glass only) and four reserve wines. The emphasis is on the producer, not the number of wines the list can boast or the roster of Usual Suspects.

In whites, there are a chardonnay and semillon from L’Ecole No. 41 in Washington; two Savennieres, a Quarts-de-Chaume and a sparkling rose from Donaine de Baumard in the Loire Valley; a gruner veltliner and a riesling from Anton Bauer in Austria, and a Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis from Domaine William Fevre.

Reds include two pinot noirs and a cabernet sauvignon from Babcock Vineyards in Santa Barbara and a charbono and a merlot from Coturri in the Sonoma Valley; a Cotes-du-Rhone Villages, a Croze-Hermitage and a Chateauneud-du-Pape from Tardieu-Laurent; and, from Chateau de Roquefort in Cotes-de-Provence, a rose, a Bouches de Rhone and a Cotes-de-Provence.

That’s it. Prices range from $39 to $94, with most being in the $40s to $60s. About half the wines are available by the glass, at prices ranging from $9 to $11. What a refreshing and respectful approach to pairing wine with a restaurant’s signature cuisine and to promoting the work of individual producers.

Then there’s the reserve list. Naturally, the prices are fairly high: Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2001, $125; Domaine Bouchard Pere et Fils Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru 1997, $180; Chateau Haut-Brion 1998, $240; Chateau d’Yquem 1997, $320.

Here’s the deal though: The prices for the four reserve wines represent the wholesale prices the restaurant paid to acquire them. For patrons at T.W. Food who want to experience these wines with the restaurant’s fare, they are available at the restaurant’s cost. There’s no mark-up, as the website says, “Not a penny.”

I have never heard of a restaurant willing to do that. Sure, the biggest mark-ups tend to come in the lower to middle price range of the wine list, and the restaurant isn’t giving the reserve wines away, but still, it’s not making money on them. You will have to decide for yourselves if this policy is a sign of preciousness or integrity, or perhaps it’s both. In any case, it’s extraordinary.