WineLine No. 23
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
Oct. 20, 2002

Wining and dining in D.C.

Dear Friends:

Thankfully for wine lovers – and wine makers – restaurants in the Washington, D.C., region are increasingly taking extra steps to promote wine sales. I hope readers who live in or near our nation's capital will take note of these and other restaurants that feature wine (this article is by no means definitive), and that others who visit Washington will find some good watering holes here to enliven your sojourn.

Some restaurants even have a wine theme – Grapeseed in Bethesda, for example, Bardeo in Cleveland Park, or Fleming's Prime Steak House and Wine Bar in Tyson's Corner, with its extensive selection of wines by the glass. Others, such as Marcel's or Legal Sea Foods, offer flights of three or four wines, usually pours of 2-3 ounces instead of the normal 5-ounce pour, and offered at a price lower than multiple glasses. These allow diners to sample the same grape vinified in different regions or countries, such as Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, California and New Zealand, or Merlot from Italy, southern France and Washington state.

A few restaurants try to make wine less intimidating by describing flavor profiles or styles, or even (less helpfully) including point scores from Robert Parker or some other wine magazine. One of my favorite wine lists was created by Michael Flynn at Kinkead's American Brasserie in D.C. Flynn arranges his wines not by grape but by body and style, from lighter to heavier and complex, juxtaposing a color-coded bar ... well, "thermometer" is perhaps the best word ... that gives a visual indicator of a wine's weight and style. That way we know if a particular Chardonnay is crisp and fruity or heavy and oaky.

Some restaurants are innovative in how they present their wine. At D.C.'s new Zola, adjacent to the International Spy Museum, the buzz may be about the visual puns created by the design team of Adams and Demetriou to evoke the age of espionage and the fun of spying a notable in the next booth. But once customers' eyes stop wandering, they may notice that the three intimate, consecutive dining areas are festooned not with displays of fresh flowers but with wine stations displaying the 18 wines offered by the glass – whites on ice, surrounded by reds and crystal glassware that tempts diners to begin their evening with bubbly. Manager Ralph Rosenberg of the Star management group says the displays have resulted in increased sales of Champagne (Veuve Clicquot at $15 a glass or Pacific Echo Brut from California at $8).

These displays have an additional advantage for both the restaurant and the customer. Since the wines are nearby, servers can show diners the bottle and tempt them with, for instance, a Sauvignon Blanc from Transylvania in Romania or a rich Grenache "The Fifteen" from France. Customers who cannot make up their minds are offered a small smidgen to taste.

Rosenberg is actively seeking out wines from behind the former Iron Curtain to keep with the spy theme of the museum and the restaurant. ("Zola" is named for Emile Zola, the French novelist of the late 19th century who wrote not only The Belly of Paris but also about the Dreyfuss Affair, a major French espionage scandal.) He also offers "daily flights" of three wines – as in "two flights daily out of Washington," he says coyly, acknowledging that the flights don't change daily but last sometimes a week or more. Coming soon will be a flight of Hungarian reds from a Soviet-era winery purchased and refurbished by a Hungarian expatriate who brought Western technology and know-how to his homeland.

Rosenberg doesn't arrange the wines on the list by style, but by price, in descending order. This may make cheapskates (or Scots-Irish, such as yours truly) work harder by forcing us further down the list, and oenogeeks looking for interesting varietals will have to sort through the jumble. But as we grumble about it, we should at least acknowledge that the arrangement recognizes most people will be ordering wine according to how much it costs, not how it tastes.

In Bethesda, Mon Ami Gabi, a Chicago-based chain, also presents its by-the-glass selection for diners to inspect. Their approach is less showy and less expensive than Zola's, in that the wines are wheeled to the table on a cart, similar to cheese and dessert carts in France.

At the new Zaytinya, armchair travelers can explore the wines of Greece, Turkey and Lebanon to pair with the eastern Mediterranean mezze painstakingly recreated by star chef José Ramón Andrés. If you prefer the western Med, stick to the Spanish wines at Jaleo (in D.C. and Bethesda, MD), where Andrés features the tapas of his native Spain.

These trends and the increasing variety are to be applauded. As a wine lover dining out, I am often perplexed to find otherwise fine restaurants offering insulting wines by the glass, as if these were only for the people who want white wine or red, grapes be damned. Similarly, if I ask what wines are available and I'm told "Merlot," that is simply not informative or thirst inspiring. There should be a way to make by-the-glass presentations attractive to customers who know their wines without intimidating those who don't. And finally someone has figured out how to do that. This is a trend I hope other restaurants will emulate.

Dave McIntyre

Restaurant Information:

Bardeo: 3309 Connecticut Ave. NW  Washington  202/244-6550
Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar: 1960-A Chain Bridge Rd.  McLean, VA  703/442-8384
Grapeseed American Bistro and Wine Bar: 4865 Cordell Ave.  Bethesda, MD  301/986-9592
Jaleo: 480 Seventh St. NW  Washington  202/628-7949; 7271 Woodmont Ave. Bethesda, MD  301/913-0003
Kinkead's: 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW  Washington, D.C.  202/296-7700
Legal Sea Foods: 2020 K St. NW  Washington, D.C.  202/496-1111
Marcel's: 2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW  Washington, D.C.  202/296-1166
Mon Ami Gabi: 7239 Woodmont Ave.  Bethesda, MD  301/654-1234
Zaytinya: 701 9th Street NW   Washington, DC 202/638-0800
Zola: 800 F Street, NW Washington, D.C. 202/654-0999.

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