By Randy Kemner, Proprietor
I’ve read a lot of criticism regarding restaurants and wine—mostly outrageous markups, poor selection, lousy stemware and improper serving temperature. In my experience, these objections are usually justified.
Restaurants typically view wine solely as a profit center and rarely give their wine lists the same attention or respect they give their food menus. I can tell at first glance whether a liquor distributor “owns” a list by the number of Estancia, Clos du Bois and Mondavi Private Selections that inhabit it. These are wines that are equally at home standing upright on a supermarket shelf or in a Cost Plus rack anywhere in the country.
Stylistic tone deafness is a personal bugaboo of mine. It is not unheard of to go to an Italian restaurant in southern California and find an Australian Shiraz by the glass. That’s a move only a liquor manager trying to make his quota could love.
What is uncommon is to discover a restaurant with a well-thought-out wine list suitable to its cuisine and a serving staff as knowledgeable about their wine as their food.
While visiting the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco last month, Samantha, Jeremy and I dined at two such establishments, and the experiences left us exhilerated and satisfied at the same time.
Beaune Imports owner Michael Sullivan recommended we dine at Nopa, a bustling eatery with a limited menu of intriguing offerings including lamb “sugo” (a superrich ragu) with papardelle, grilled pork chop, fish stew, rotisserie chicken, Moroccan vegetable tagine, grass fed hamburger and fries, poached farm egg with tasso ham and mustard greens, and an intensely beefy barley soup, the likes of which you rarely encounter. Incredible bites.
With the savory menu offerings, sommelier Chris Deegan has assembled a broad and thrilling selection of wines by the glass, beginning with a generous selection of sherries along with sparkling wines from Spain, Mendocino, Champagne and the Languedoc. Other by-the-glass offerings were from the Jura, Spain, Yountville, Nahe, Portugal, Piedmont, Northern Rhone and Sonoma.
Napa Cabernet plays a back bench role on the wine list, for as we all know (or should know by now), the compelling varietal is very limited in its pairing ability, an observation made by no less than Robert Parker, Jr. Nopa’s Chardonnays lean more to Burgundy than California, yet all are selected for their food-worthiness rather than their opulence. Eight rosés proudly appeared on the list including one of my absolute favorites, the Cassis from Domaine du Bagnol, and a reserve list is available for those wanting to spluge a little. Corkage is a reasonable $20, very fair for such a restaurant.
Samantha marveled at the low margins on all these wines, then, as she looked around the room, immediately understood why everyone had wine on their tables.
The three of us enjoyed the Heredia de Lopez 2001 Viña Tondonia Rioja with our main courses and our alert server detected a slightly corked bottle by sniffing the bottle before serving. How amazing is that? She promptly brought us a second, correct bottle.
The next day we took a cab ride over to the Ferry Building and strolled through the food boutiques, stopping at the Cowgirl Creamery store, the McEvoy Olive Oil store, Acme Bakery, Recchiuti Chocolatier, and a couple boutique grocers. When the clock struck 11 a.m. we wandered into The Slanted Door, a popular Vietnamese restaurant overlooking the Oakland Bay Bridge. For years this eatery has frustrated the Napa Valley establishment with its refusal to carry high-alcohol wines. The spicy and delicately flavored dishes call for mostly white, oak-free wines, particulary from the Loire, Austria and Germany.
Adventurous and courageous, the Slanted Door wine list offers wines you may have never seen before. It was the first time I encountered a truly orange (Nehi orange!) “orange” wine, a trendy curiosity—Pinot Gris from a natural wine producer in Sonoma. It smelled like a tank sample fresh from the thief. The glass-pour that best accompanied our spicy chicken and lamb dishes, however, was a Rheingau Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) rosé, with enough gentle fruit to act as a salve with all the spice on the plate. You will not find wines like these at Appleby’s.
I wish more of our local restaurants would take a cue from these impressive Bay area restaurants. Not only did we want to eat everything on their menus, we wanted to dip into everything on their wine lists. “Bravo!” I say.
A few days later Dale and I joined friends at a hotel restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. Looking at the wine list, we could have been in Des Moines or any airport hotel in the U.S. It was populated with labels like Chateau St. Michelle, Estancia and Chandon—nondescript, corporate wines made for undiscriminating consumption.
It’s not that these wines are bad. They are just boring as all hell. And they are ubiquitous. You can find them at any grocery store in California. They have been formulated to appeal to mass tastes—neither distinctive nor adventuresome—and they all possess the requisite sweetness that undemanding patrons and wine newbies seem to tolerate. They are cynically selected for a transient clientele the restaurant is not likely to entertain often.
The following Saturday, LA Times food writer S. Irene Virbila wrote a feature on wine pairing with none other than Charles Phan, owner of the Slanted Door. In the article, Phan described the evolution of his revolutionary wine list. “Back then,” the article quoted Phan, “people thought we were being snobby, leaving Napa out.”
“Napa wasn’t exactly making the kinds of wines that went well with Vietnamese food,” wrote Virbila. “From experience, I’m well aware that it’s not easy pairing wines with Vietnamese food, which is often sweet, tart and fiery, all at the same time. That’s why I was so curious about Phan’s favorite wine matches for specific recipes.”
Responded Phan: “Wines with high alcohol (anything over 14%) or low acidity are not going to work with this spicy and sweet food.”
Virbila reported, “when guests balk at ordering unfamiliar wines, Phan offers to let them try something dry and something fruity side by side and then choose which they think works better with the food.”
“If you don’t do an experiment like that,” he says, “you won’t see how wonderful the changes are, how the wine makes the food more interesting.”