Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit.
Robert Mondavi

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wine list can speak volumes about an eatery

As published in the 10/21 edition of the Nashua Telegraph (click link to view Telegraph version).

A restaurant’s wine list says a lot about who the people running it are, what their aspirations are and what they think about you. This is very evident in locations that you will visit across the country. From Applebee’s, to The Cheesecake Factory, to Mario Batali’s Del Posto, you will find very different, yet appropriate, wine experiences that fit the atmosphere, cuisine and crowd that typically dine at these establishments.

I bring up Batali’s Del Posto because a good friend of mine recently dined there while taking a long weekend in New York City. Once he returned, he had a few questions for me regarding his wine experience at Del Posto.

On a recent trip to New York, I went out for a truly fine dining experience. After being seated, I was greeted with a massive wine list. When I mean massive, I mean more than 2,500 selections. How does a restaurant build and maintain such a large list, and is it necessary?

This is certainly a legitimate way to look at the situation. A wine list of this magnitude can be overwhelming, to say the least. The answer to the first part of the question will be a bit wordy, so let me address the second part first.

Using my friend’s example, Del Posto is in the food and wine mecca of the U.S. Day in and day out, it goes up against culinary giants such as Daniel, Jean Georges, Le Cirque, Tribeca Grill and countless others. Competition is fierce, and there is a significant amount of prestige that is placed on an award-winning wine list and the service that is provided by their resident sommelier(s). Having truly classic wines available is an appropriate necessity when you are dining on a truly classic meal!

Del Posto, as mentioned before, is one of many restaurants owned by Batali. Besides being an extremely successful restaurateur, he is also a partner in Italian Wine Merchants, which is a high-end wine shop that has a selection of Italian gems unlike any other I have come across. It is this passion for bringing together the complete dining experience that sets restaurants and restaurateurs, like Batali, apart. It is also what allows the restaurant to charge a premium for the experience that it provides, while maintaining a waiting list as long as Madison Avenue! How does a restaurant build and maintain such a large list?

To build a wine list with the breadth and vision of Del Posto, locally based Left Bank at the Stonehedge Inn & Spa (owner Levent Bozkurt and son Taylan pictured right) in Tyngsborough, Mass., or any restaurant with a tremendous wine offering, takes a very structured approach. Once the structure is in place, knowledgeable people are needed to implement the list, along with an owner with exceptionally deep pockets.

Initially, the most important steps are to realistically assess your clientele, menu, storage space and budget. Not everyone can afford a bottle of a Bordeaux First-Growth, Chateau Petrus, Gaja Sori Tilden or Romano Dal Forno, especially when marked up to restaurant standards. This means that there must be a number of wines to bridge the gap between reasonably priced wines and the classics.

The job of creating any wine list typically falls either to the owner, a wine director, a consultant or, unfortunately in some cases, a distributor. Now, a list that is of notable quality will probably not be developed by distributors, so we will avoid speaking about them any further.

Depending on the size of a wine list, the owner, if truly knowledgeable, or a consultant can put into place something special that will convey to the patrons that their experience is of the utmost importance. This takes a massive amount of time and effort, so unless you plan on doing all of the leg work, hire someone to do it for you. A couple good examples of this are Unums and Michael Timothy’s in Nashua. They have modest wine lists compared to Del Posto, but lists that are well thought out and looked over by the owners.

A different example is Junipers at the Wildflower Inn in Lyndonville, Vt. The owners and management did not have the knowledge to put together a thoughtful and quality wine list. They decided to hire a consultant do so. (In full disclosure, I put together this list.) It was rewarding to see them embrace what a thoughtful wine list could do, not only for their patrons, but for their restaurant.

Creating and maintaining a list such as the one at Left Bank at Stonehedge, which offers 2,000 selections (112,000 bottles in inventory), or Del Posto, which offers 2,300 selections (39,000 bottles in inventory), takes a team effort. The organization is typically led by a wine director and generally includes personnel working beneath them (i.e., assistant director and sommeliers). The task is a daily exercise in taking inventory – thank goodness for computers – reordering, blind and regular tastings, negotiating, rotation, research, promotion, etc. It is a daunting task, but a task that is energetically undertaken, because wine professionals are exceptionally passionate about what they do.

Ultimately, a restaurateur’s goal is to create an experience that is positively unique and memorable. A strong wine list is essential in conveying the message of a restaurant to its patrons. If this is done effectively, the guests will leave happy and be more likely to return.


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