WineLine No. 33
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
Sept. 13, 2003

Redefining Wine Lists

Dear Friends -

The definition of a great restaurant wine list has evolved along with our conception of fine dining. The stereotypical bound, heavy volume with page after page of first growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy may still be appropriate for haute cuisine restaurants with fine linen, polished silver and tuxedoed waiters. But dining out is no longer exclusively French, or formal. And France, while still representing the Promised Land of good wine, has relinquished its monopoly as top bottlings are now available from many countries around the world.

I've published several articles over the years that began with the title, "Washington's Best Wine Lists." But I've invariably changed that theme to "Wine-Friendly Restaurants," because different wine lists appeal to my thirst in different ways. A short list is not necessarily inferior to that weighty tome if it includes well-chosen wines at reasonable prices that match the restaurant's theme or cuisine. A good selection of wines by the glass or half bottle is a definite plus. Features such as flights or sample glasses that encourage diners to explore new wines garner extra points in my book.

Recently, I was honored to be one of three Washington-area wine writers asked to select the "Wine and Beverage Program of the Year" for the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington's annual awards gala. We were asked to choose among five restaurants that boasted exciting wine programs. The choice was not easy, because each had different strengths and could not readily be compared to the others.

Zola took the prize, based largely on its innovative wine presentation both in the dining room and on the list itself. When you are led to your table at Zola, your attention is drawn to three wine stations arrayed among the tables with about two dozen wines opened for the restaurant's by-the-glass offering. It's like walking into a big party; you immediately feel welcome and at ease. With the bottles within a waiter's easy reach, your glass can't remain empty for long, and diners are encouraged to sample a taste of an unknown wine before committing.

Zola's main list is arranged in descending order by price, a simple but unusual twist that allows diners to zero in on their comfort range quickly and discreetly. There are also extensive tasting notes penned by manager Ralph Rosenberg that help explain some of the less familiar offerings. It's a seductive effect designed to make diners comfortable and thirsty. If I were to nitpick, I'd argue for getting rid of the wine magazine point scores; the only rating that matters is the one awarded by the customer at the end of the evening.

Another finalist that strives to put diners at ease in selecting wine is Kinkead's. Sommelier Michael Flynn searches out wines from around the world, and he knows that many of these will not be familiar to the restaurant's patrons. So he developed a wine barometer of sorts, a color-coded gauge that ranks wines by body and style. Whites range from crisp and refreshing to full-bodied and oaky, while reds progress from light and fruity to deep and tannic. If you prefer Chardonnay that favors fruit over wood, the Kinkead's barometer will point you in the right direction. If you recognize a favorite wine, you can find others of similar weight and style - if different grapes - nearby on the list. Flynn also runs monthly specials by-the-glass, featuring Rieslings from around the world, for example, or various wines from a selected region.

Michel Richard Citronelle was the finalist that most represented the old-school notion of restaurant wine lists. That's not a criticism, just an observation. Mark Slater presides over the massive wine vault at the back of the dining room, and he obviously wheedles, cajoles, and persuades every contact he has to land the cult California Cabernet Sauvignons one reads about on the auction page of wine magazines. (Although, given Chef Michel Richard's celebrity status in California and the quality of his cuisine, Slater probably spends much of his time turning away wineries begging to be on his list.) This is a great list for wine connoisseurs on expense accounts. And Condrieu by the glass! What a concept! It's a great opportunity for a wine lover to experience a rare wine without buying an entire bottle. My one critique of this list is that it does not cater to diners splurging on a special night out; there are some affordable gems here, but they get lost among the big-ticket items. A separate page of wines under, say, $60 would help put these diners at ease without diminishing the restaurant's cachet.

The last two finalists are exemplars of wine lists that match a restaurant's theme and cuisine, and it's no coincidence they come from the same ownership group. Roberto Alvarez, Rob Wilder and José Ramón Andrés have a Midas touch in combining fun with casual dining at Jaleo, Zaytinya and Café Atlantico in Penn Quarter. At Zaytinya they have challenged diners with unpronounceable Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko wines from Greece, plus others from Turkey and Lebanon to match the Eastern Mediterranean mezze on the menu. This dare earned a rebuke from one local magazine that groused, "ordering wine in a restaurant shouldn't always involve discovery." But Zaytinya's customers have not been so timid. (And even Greece makes Chardonnay and Cabernet, for crying out loud.)

Café Atlantico offers one of the most extensive selections of South American wines in the country, ranging from the high-quality value-priced wines that put Chile and Argentina on the wine map to the expensive bottlings that are now challenging the world's best. Not many wine lists feature a section devoted to Carmenère, Chile's ersatz Merlot. Even so, the list might be more fun if arranged by geography rather than varietal, to heighten the sense of exploration. And it remains to be seen how the list may evolve now that Andrés, this year's James Beard Award winner as best chef in the Mid-Atlantic, is once again exerting his fanciful, creative influence in the kitchen. With a cuisine that recognizes no boundaries, can one reasonably restrict the wine list to one hemisphere?

At a recent tasting of Virginia wines sponsored by the American Institute of Wine and Food's National Capital Chapter and the Virginia Wine and Food Society, the clear standout to my palate was the Linden Vineyards 2002 Sauvignon Blanc "Avenius." From a grape that wasn't supposed to be suitable to the Old Dominion, this wine could stand proud among the best Sauvignon Blancs in the world. And at about $16, it competes in value as well. Bravo to winemaker Jim Law!

Dave McIntyre

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