For years, Desta Maree Klein has tried to find the best wines to match the French cuisine at Meritage in St. Paul, which she co-owns with her husband, chef Russell Klein. She sampled hundreds of bottles at local trade tastings. It worked pretty well, but then she had an even better idea:
Go to the source.
So this year, Klein spent four months living in Bordeaux. She studied restaurant and wine bar lists, attended an organic/biodynamic convention, met with winemakers and became a member of the iconic wine museum La Cité du Vin.
It was, as she put it, “having this education by sheer exposure, immersing myself in French culture to find out what they do, to learn the wine culture and hospitality, a reinvestment in my own professional development.”
And it worked. Klein has started remolding the St. Paul restaurant’s wine list since returning in late April, in terms of content (more Bordeaux in particular and French wines in general) and value. “I’m reworking the price points of our wine list,” she said. “I want people to be able to explore wine, and Bordeaux can be so price- prohibitive.”
Folks such as Klein are the biggest reason why so many Twin Cities area restaurant wine lists are infinitely more interesting than they were just a few years ago. Flocking to local trade tastings to uncover gems is part of the plan, but more and more of them are actually journeying to wine regions to see — and taste and feel — for themselves what is going on there.
“Now that our world is much smaller [thanks to local importers’ efforts], you don’t have to travel,” said Charlie Broder, wine director for the Broders’ restaurant group in Minneapolis, “but when you do, you are gifted with so much more, whether it’s the air or the soil or the people. You can develop a clear and comprehensive understanding of what makes these wines what they are and get the nuances that just aren’t available when we’re tasting here.”
Sometimes local restaurant folks make these treks to visit specific wineries with importers. Several of them have attended the annual four-day Oregon Pinot Camp to learn more about the Willamette Valley’s pinot noirs. But many of them relish the freedom of creating their own itinerary and agenda, even if it’s on their own dime.
And sometimes, the quest coalesces with a personal agenda. Bellecour’s Nico Giraud grew up in France, and his family still lives in Provence. So he generally heads there twice a year on combo outings.
“I’m really going to see my family,” Giraud said, “but I do tastings during the day. I might go do a couple of tastings in the morning, then home for lunch, then back out for a couple more tastings.”
What if he decided to go to France with a strictly vinous game plan? “My mother would never speak to me again,” he said with a chuckle.
Occasionally these sojourns involve an additional motivation, tied to the nature of these people’s line of work.
Klein admitted that the double whammy of losing longtime manager Giraud (a primary force in shaping the Meritage wine list) and the closing of the Kleins’ Minneapolis restaurant Brasserie Zentral in January 2016 took an emotional toll.
“I needed to regroup,” she said. So after she and Russell took their annual food-centric European expedition last year, she hit upon the four-months-in-Bordeaux idea.
In a similar vein, Broder said, “in this business, there are periods of unenthusiasm or maybe burnout. But wherever I travel, I get so inspired to represent those regions as best we can.”
Eye- and palate-opening
That’s why these pilgrimages can bring not only knowledge and understanding but also revelation and inspiration. Almost inevitably, there are “a-ha” moments along the way, whether involving a person, a particular place or a grape.
This spring, Broder developed a profound appreciation for the white wines of Italy’s Friuli region. “The friulano, ribolla and even the chardonnay there are monumental in scope,” he said. Giraud fairly gushes when recounting “barrel-sampling single-vineyard Côte Rôties last year with [Rhône winemaker] Stephane Ogier.”
For Bachelor Farmer’s Erin Rolek, a few epiphanies stand out. One concerned a fairly obscure grape in a fairly obscure place. “I was in the Marche [region] in Italy and visited Lorenzo Marotti Campi. Lacrima is not a varietal that I had thought about much, but he’s the king of lacrima. He makes a really cool one. I love when I’m proven wrong like that.”
She also recalled “a spiritual experience with a 1942 Château Chalon” in France’s Jura region and how “being in the presence of [Rhône legend] Jean-Louis Chave was one of the most important afternoons of my wine life.”
Another indelible moment came while standing in a vineyard at Provence’s Mas de Gourgonnier. “Perfect vines in this perfect setting, a beautiful vineyard. You can really tell when someplace is extra special.”
For Rolek and her peers, there’s nothing quite like walking among the vines and, not to put too fine a point on it, playing in, or at least with, the dirt.
“I think being humble with wine is important,” Broder said. “Being able to have your hands on the soil and see how those aromas, those textures translate to a wine, it’s breathtaking. It reaffirms my passion for wine.”
Expanding the options
Mystical moments aside, a practical result is that these experiences are brought back to Minnesota. While trying to understand a region is generally a bigger goal than finding individual wines, these visits are enhancing the entire Twin Cities wine market, by encouraging vintners and/or local importers/wholesalers to bring in unearthed gems.
“I’ve had wines overseas that have not been represented in Minnesota that I’ve tried to encourage people to get into the market,” Rolek said, “and some of them have.”
Klein is working that angle as well, most notably, naturally, with Bordeaux. “For years, we’ve been seeing so little, basically the top 5 percent and bottom 10 percent, because people think that’s what Bordeaux is. I’m looking in that middle ground, Cru Bourgeois and wines from the Medoc that are evaluated every year, and so you have a way to know that you’re getting solidly produced wine.”
And anytime one restaurateur helps bring a new wine to the market, it becomes available to all retailers and eateries.
There’s also a trickle-down effect for diners, manifesting when a waitress might start extolling and explaining the virtues of something from a lesser-known region such as the Jura or Friuli.
Going on these odysseys, Broder said, “helps me make sure the education going to our staff is of substance.”
She was truly ‘all in’
Klein is taking it another step further, putting on seminars and “palate sessions” for Meritage customers. Of course, it would be a challenge to pass along everything she learned because her experience was so thoroughly immersive.
She attended workshops and movie screenings at La Cité du Vin. She tasted 50-plus cuvées at the organic/biodynamic confab. She became a habitué at the Au Bon Jaja wine bar in Bordeaux, where the politics of wine was a frequent topic of conversation. She burrowed into the local wines, gaining a new appreciation for cabernet franc.
And she hit other regions, meeting with the Breton family in the Loire region and developing a crush on their Vouvray “Le Dilettante” (now coming to this market).
In essence, she was fulfilling a mission: to take the farm-to-table concept a step further. “I want to go vine to table.”
The experience, she said, “was such an awakening. It’s one of those things: You crack open a door a little bit at a time, and finally you realize how big the room is.”
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.