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Opening a restaurant in 2010's economic climate might have seemed like a dicey if not downright crazy proposition. But in one important respect, the timing was perfect:
It has never been easier to put together a wine list packed with value and wide-ranging in terms of grapes, regions and price points.
The globalization of wine and subsequent grape gluts have activated the old supply-demand axiom. The economy not only has altered consumer habits (salmon and wine at home rather than eating out) but also sounded wakeup calls for wineries (California wine sales dropped for the first time in 16 years in 2009) and a restaurant industry that had enjoyed huge, often obscene markups for years (U.S. restaurant wine sales declined by 5 percent in 2008 and 10 percent last year).
"There are a lot of options out there, a lot of great juice out there," said Luke Shimp, who put together the list at Scusi in St. Paul. "It has been fairly easy to find value."
"There's just a lot of opportunity right now," said Jeff Mitchell, who built the list at Bloomington's Parma 8200. "Before, you had to fight for allocations. Now we can introduce consumers to some things we weren't able to get our hands on three to five years ago."
At his new Minneapolis eatery In Season, chef/general manager Don Saunders is selling 10 wines for less than $30 a bottle, including "an Angeline pinot noir that I just love. To get a pinot from California that tastes that nice at that price, I'm not sure you could have done that a few years ago."
It's not just prices that have shrunk. There are many more smaller-bottle and by-the-glass offerings than in years past.
In Season sells 17 wines by the glass, Parma 8200 has 19, and Aperitif in Woodbury offers 23. At Scusi, 22 wines are available in quartino (quarter-liter) and mezzo (half-liter) sizes, and at Travail Kitchen & Amusements in Robbinsdale, all 23 wines are available by the glass (well, technically, the Coppola bubby is sold in a can).
New and improved
Technology has made it easier for restaurants to operate that way. Saunders said veteran wine rep Paul Daggett taught him how to preserve open bottles with a nitrogen-argon hybrid. Aperitif and Scusi have elaborate systems, WineKeeper and Enomatic respectively, that use those gases to keep bottles fresh for up to six weeks.
"We haven't had to test that claim yet," said Aperitif general manager J.P. Albanese with a chuckle. "I don't think we've had anything open for more than a week."
Still, having better means of preservation and aggressive pricing don't mean an automatic buy, said James Winberg of Travail in Robbinsdale. "People are trying to move wine, but I'm not always going to put a carmenere from Chile on the list because it's three bucks," he said. "But if it's good, I will."
And if it goes with the chef's food, all the better.
That was a top priority for James Andrus, wine buyer at Minneapolis' small-plate mecca Piccolo. But the ideal pairing for Doug Flicker's cuisine was what Andrus called "quiet" wines. "The expectation was that the food would carry the evening," Andrus said. "I tried to pick wines that were well balanced but did not become the 'stars' of the meal."
Landing wines that "did not overpower Doug's food" meant a list heavy with European wines, which tend to have more acidity and less "weight" than New World bottlings. Other newer eateries have hopped aboard the Eurocentric bandwagon because of their cuisines, under the old "if it grows together, it goes together" concept.
Scusi's wine list correlates with the "concept, which is Italian neighborhood," Shimp said. Aperitif's list is Mediterranean-heavy, "a wide variety from France, Spain and Italy to match up with our food program," Albanese noted.
A wine for every need
But not all wines on local lists are there because they're food-friendly. "We wanted to balance it out with wines you can drink with food and wines that need food," said Shimp, citing the Astoria Pinot Nero as "just a drinkable wine. But the Catamuri Chianti, it cries out, 'We need a little something to accompany me here.'"
Saunders set out to craft a different kind of "mixed" wine program, "having part of the list be familiar ones and part of it being more what I'd call 'discovery' wines, wines that people have to be talked into."
Mitchell has encouraged the staff at Parma 8200 to embrace that approach, with Italian varietals that are "not your grandma's pinot grigio" -- but can see it from there.
"You can have someone who's been a pinot grigio drinker for years and years and educate servers to say, 'This arneis is a little different, but I think you'll like it,'" he said. "Instead of having a wine list that sells itself, you put something on there where the staff has to think."
The new, wider world of wine options applies to not only the juice, but the vessel. Scusi is, best I can tell, the first Twin Cities establishment to sell wine by the keg. Yes, the keg. The 2008 Frog's Leap Napa Zinfandel is the only current offering, but Shimp is talking to several wineries that have embraced this hot West Coast trend.
That's just one of the many ways these newer restaurants have more on tap than most of their predecessors.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643