Wine lists are often built as a testament to an operator’s commitment to creating a complete and unique dining experience. Wine managers and sommeliers look to many things—from the food to the clientele—when finding the right mix of American and international grape varieties. For those in or around wine country, the pressure is often on showcasing the local flare.
The four wine managers interviewed for this story say the first rule of thumb is to ensure that all of your wine selections work with your food. Then, they say, add the best of what your region has to offer. While this seems like simple advice, each takes a different approach to showcasing his or her take on regional flare. From a dedication to local wines, to showcasing only the best of the best in the area, to offering freedom to local wine managers to find the best locally, these restaurants work to incorporate local wines in the mix.
At Manresa in Los Gatos, California, a European-American restaurant, Jeffrey Bareilles, wine and beverage director, chooses wines that work with Chef David Kinch’s cuisine. Located at the foot of the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA, local options abound. “They grow almost every varietal but sauvignon blanc,” he says. “There are some of world’s best wines here and some of the world’s worst wines.”
Bareilles feels a sense of responsibility to showcase the very best of the AVA. In fact, he highlights the local wines first on his list with the description of the AVA.
That said, Bareilles aims for balance in wines on his 600-bottle wine list, priced from $36 to 2,400. “The way that I choose wine is the same as choosing from anywhere in the world,” he explains, admitting that he does look at home first. “If we can’t find it here, we start to find other places. We are always looking for the best.”
He admits that he has more French wine than domestic wines on his menu. “It’s simply because they have an extra 1,000 years of winemaking on us,” he says. “It’s a balance. Whether I’m looking at wines from the mountain or international, I always look for balance in a selection,” notes Bareilles. “Acidity, alcohol, tannins and sugar—if all four aren’t in line then I have to question it.”
Clientele for the restaurant is a mix, with about 60 percent coming from San Francisco and beyond. “It’s not a restaurant where you just happen upon it,” he says. “The guests come to really sit down and have an experience. And that’s what we try to provide for them—to make their journey worth it.”
The guests from other parts of country or world do look for the local wines, he notes. Local wines, such as those from Windy Oaks Estate, tend to move slightly faster than those from other regions. Bareilles usually offers four or five selections from the AVA by the glass and about 75 by the bottle.
He concludes, “My philosophy is that I try to provide guests with the selections they expect—and with selections that complement what chef does.”
Tyler Packwood, sommelier at Trummer’s on Main, a creative American restaurant in Clifton, Virginia, looks for diversity when creating his wine list. His 400-bottle wine list features varieties from 15 countries ($30 to $3,700) and each wine is picked based on flavor profile and price.
Being mere miles away from Virginia’s wine country is not lost on Packwood. Knowing people are going to look for local wines, he strives to feature the best of what Virginia has to offer.
“There is still a perception that Virginia wines are lesser in quality,” he admits. To combat this, his house wine is from nearby Barboursville Winery. He offers the winery’s chardonnay for $8 and the cabernet sauvignon for $10 a glass. “These are very good and consistent,” he explains. “We need to know we are going to get good quality over vintages.”
Trummer’s wine list doesn’t feature local wines any more prominently than other selections. Instead customers are left to discover the wines on the menu or through the recommendation of an educated staff. “People are starting to order more Virginia wines without my advice,” observes Packwood. “They are recognizing the wines and producers when I’m not at the table.”
Many tend to go with the bigger wine names in Virginia. Octagon from Barboursville is a top seller and Paradise Springs of Clifton, which is just a few miles from the restaurant, is often requested.
Virginia wines are featured in the restaurant’s weekly wine tastings on Thursday nights. Packwood also looks to showcase Virginia wines in tastings menus, when appropriate.
“What we are trying to do is offer wine from around the world so people have interesting selections to drink,” he says.
Cuvée Bistro & Bar in Greenport, N.Y., takes a definitive local stance when it comes to wine. “My concept for the menu is what is on the farm stand: summer, winter, spring and fall,” explains Deborah R. Pittorino, owner and executive chef. With that same dedication, she sources the majority of the wines on her list from the local wineries of Northfork, Long Island.
In fact, more than 50 percent of her list is made of local varietals and she doesn’t even carry any California wine. Instead, Pittorino educates her customers very carefully about the local wines. “We strive to promote varietals that have been grown with success in Long Island such as cabernet franc, viognier and gewürztraminer, as well as feature an ‘Old World’ example of the same varietal allowing the customer to compare and contrast the two,” it reads.
“It’s all about pairing the food with the drink, so our guests have an integrated food and beverage experience,” says Pittorino. “We look for wines that do not overwhelm dishes with subtly of fresh flavors like a grilled zucchini bisque or a local striped bass. When working with fresh produce and seafood, we are careful to not overwhelm with seasonings like too much garlic or overuse of strong herbs like rosemary. Subsequently we would not what to violate the flavors with over-oaked wines and other extreme flavors.
Of the 40 wines on her by-the-glass list ($6 to $15), more than half are local ($8 to $15), with the remaining coming from around the globe. “We try to stack up the varietals for people to compare and contrast,” she notes, adding that she does spend time educating her clientele “with love.” Bestsellers include varieties from Raphael, Bedell and Schinn.
The bourgeoning story of wine country in Long Island is also good selling tool. “There are a lot of exciting people here,” she says. “For example, Laurel Lake Vineyards is owned by people from Chile and they make a very Chilean-style wine. The guy is a genius and waits until the last possible minute to pick his cabernet sauvignon. It makes a big, vibrant wine.”
The wine mix at Cuvée does changes seasonally. In the high summer season, when the majority of guests are from out of town, more than 75 percent of the wine purchased at the restaurant is from local vineyards. This flips in the slower season where more locals are dining, mainly due to price.
Local wine and food is a distinguishing characteristic for Pittorino. “We by far have more local than anyone in the area,” she says. “I just don’t think it makes sense to be somewhere and not use what you have.”
Offering local wines is easy when you are running one-location operator near a defined wine-growing region. But what about the chains?
At 65-location Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, Maeve Pesquera, director of wine, aims to create a true a “wine culture” at every Fleming’s location.
To start, she creates a core list 100 wines by the glass ($6.50 to $25), dubbed “Fleming’s 100,” which changes annually. To showcase the list the chain hosts a “Month of Discovery” in September, where guests are given the opportunity to taste the wines.
“The wines we select are all balanced with pure fruit forward flavors,” says Pesquera. “Some are unoaked to go with more subtle dishes and others oaked to stand up to grill flavors. Similarly the tannin levels are low in some red wines to go with leaner cuts of beef for example while wines with more tannin pair wonderfully with richly marbled cuts.”
Each restaurant has a wine manager who is given the freedom to add up to 20 selections to the Fleming’s 100 list based on guest’s preferences and local flair. In addition, they are able to add 40 to 50 wines to the bottle list. Individual wine magazines can choose up to 20 by-the-glass and 40 by-the-bottle selections to cater to their local market.
“The wine managers are experts in their region/state,” notes Pesquera. “If there is not a winery close by, I encourage them to seek out a few gems as close or as local as possible. They do a great job of understanding their areas, and purchasing what they feel best represents their area.” Local selections are listed on a separate page on the menu so they stand out to guests. And the individual wine managers are responsible for setting up four local wine dinners or events every year.
For example, the Tysons Corner, Virginia location is able to highlight the growing number of vineyards in the area. Wine manager Robert Mee currently features wines from four different vineyards on the list, including those from Fabbioli Cellars, Chatham Vineyards, Barboursville and Williamsburg Winery. Best sellers include the Church Creek Steel Chardonnay by Chatham Vineyards ($12.50 a glass), Williamsburg LH Vidal ($10) and Barboursville Phileo ($15).
In addition, Mee has found success highlighting a local Virginia winery at a wine dinner in October, which is Virginia Wine Month. The most recent one featured selections from the Williamsburg Winery.
Being adaptable is key for a chain with locations in places that don’t necessarily have a wine-growing region. These locales are able to pick regional favorites based on their customers and overall trends in the area. Pesquera says, “This is very effective in all markets, creating a true wine culture in all Fleming’s locations.”
Despite the approach to regional wines, all wine managers have found success incorporating the local options that work for their areas and increase interest in the wine program overall.