Sometimes we are able to put aphorisms to bed. Take “Everything in its place, and a place for everything.”
The world need not always be that orderly. Especially when it comes to wine in restaurants.
Sure, many venues fit conventional-wisdom archetypes. Most steakhouses hew to “cab is king” approaches. Asian eateries tend to have small, boring wine lists. Finding a cool vinous selection in the suburbs, especially outer-ring ones, is generally a fruitless venture.
So the surest sign that the Twin Cities area wine market is maturing is the burgeoning number of spaces and places that prompt a “Really?!?!” response with their offerings.
Here are a few noteworthy examples:
Raising the steaks in Wayzata
Yes, Jordan, Silver Oak and Caymus cabs are on the list and remain the default choice for many customers, but Gianni’s Steakhouse (635 Lake St. E., Wayzata, 952-404-1100, giannis-steakhouse.com) delves more deeply into the wine world than any steak/chophouse around.
The impetus comes from executive chef Steve Vranian. “The list was sort of ‘maintained,’ and I said I wanted to take the list over,” said the veteran of California restaurants, including the former Stars in San Francisco. “I knew our guests had trusted us with the [Napa and Sonoma cabernets], so we thought maybe they would trust us with some other appellations and wines.
“Second, we noticed how often we were getting people paying for corkage [to bring in their own bottles] and said, ‘Why can’t we bring in some of these wines?’ So I became a crazy shopper.”
Vranian started by using his California background to peg options such as Neyers Zinfandel, Trefethen Merlot and Thomas Fogarty Pinot Noir and Cabernet. Then he looked northward and brought in Domaine Serene Pinot Noirs from Oregon and Obsidian Ridge Cabernet from Washington’s Red Hills district. Along the way he was revisiting “forgotten” Napa classics such as the resurgent cabernet program at Inglenook (“which people had come to think of as jug wine”) and old favorite Whitehall Lane sauvignon blanc.
And when he discovered some wonderful wines from a small Sonoma winery, including superb renditions of French colombard and tannat, Vranian convinced a local distributor to bring in Y. Rousseau bottlings.
Not satisfied with merely expanding the domestic repertoire, Vranian tapped into the food-friendly imports from Kermit Lynch. “I wanted to get some wines in the $60 to $80 range,” Vranian said, “and [Lynch] offers tremendous value there.” By the time last spring arrived, Gianni’s was offering nine rosés by the glass from such locales as Corsica, Germany and the Canary Islands.
As the restaurant set out to open the minds of steakhouse habitués, Vranian started running more specials to introduce brands or varietals, abetted by having “a couple of servers who really know their stuff.”
“We wanted to create excitement for our staff and create excitement for our customers,” he said.
Hiding in semi-plain sight
Over the years, thousands of Minnesotans have bought delicious baked and deli goods at Cafe Latte (850 Grand Av., St. Paul, 651-224-5687, cafelatte.com) and left with no inkling that behind the gourmet cafeteria sits a wine bar.
In this case, a dandy wine list is less a “discovery” for consumers than the fact that the place itself exists. “Some of our regular customers probably like [the relative obscurity] because they can get a seat,” said owner/manager Bryce Quinn, who chuckled while adding that “we do have a ‘Pizza & Wine Bar’ sign on Victoria,” a much less traveled side street than the deli/bakery’s Grand Avenue storefront.
Not many state capitals have as few wine bars at St. Paul — OK, maybe Pierre, S.D. — but Cafe Latte makes up in quality what the town around it lacks in quantity. The list is almost entirely by-the-glass — 24, plus nine “specials” — with a mix of familiar and arcane brands.
Quinn takes full advantage of the plethora of distributors in this market, sampling hundreds of wines (it’s a dirty job, but …) every year with two goals in mind.
“We’re looking for deals throughout the year to get value on really recognizable labels,” he said, “and for more obscure wines that our customers can have some fun trying. There are so many suppliers that it gets some nice competition going, with deals throughout the year.”
That allows Quinn to rotate his by-the-glass specials every two weeks or so, and for his customers to explore the ever expanding wine world. That’s assuming they can find the place.
Thai-ing (more than) one on
For nine years, Joe and Holly Hatch-Surisook have been going further than any of their local Asian-resturant peers to put together a wine list that is not only distinctive but in perfect harmony with their food. “We’ve been tailoring this list all along,” Joe said.
Which means guests at Sen Yai Sen Lek (2422 Central Av. NE., Mpls., 612-781-3046, senyai-senlek.com) can confidently order any of a myriad of wines that will dance deftly with their food. That’s because the Hatch-Surisooks and bar manager Laura Dear sit down frequently with wholesale reps and taste every offering with each of four dishes on the menu.
“If they work with those four dishes, they will work with everything on the menu,” Dear said, “and if they don’t, they won’t. Everything we have on our list has been tasted with our food.”
The goal, she added, is “to break away from the stereotype that rieslings are the only things that pair well with Thai food. We want to go for more citrus-based or fruit-based whites and reds. We still have sweeter wines, but we are trying to expand the conception.”
That means they end up with fruity wines such as a Val du Charron red blend from South Africa (“with lots of cherry and raspberry,” Joe Hatch-Surisook said) and a white Domaine de Cassagnoles from France’s Gascony region (“nice and crisp, some green apple, works beautifully with anything that has citrus flavors”).
And unlike many restaurants that tout themselves as locavore-centric, these guys have found room for two Minnesota wines: St. Croix Vignoles and Alexis Bailly “Voyageurs” blend.
Any fries with your (fab) wine?
A top Twin Cities’ burger chain surely could get by with some hearty and/or spicy reds and a handful of whites. But owner Luke Shimp and wine buyer Jason Kallsen had different ideas for Red Cow (several locations, redcowmn.com).
First off, they went all the way in terms of glassware and wine preservation (meaning the bottles for by-the-glass options stay fresher longer). They made sure the wines would be served at the proper temperatures.
They then co-crafted — and continue to augment — a wine list that looks like it belongs more in a chef-driven emporium than a burger bar: Cortese and Lambrusco from Italy, red blends from five regions and a Coravin program that includes cult wines such as Opus One Bordeaux Blend and Kosta Browne Pinot Noir.
Shimp said he was especially excited about an upcoming addition: Bollinger and Drappier Champagnes by the glass beginning Dec. 14. They’re the perfect pairing for French fries.
North by northeast
Darrin Pender enjoys telling the story about a visiting winemaker who was headed to one of his restaurants and asked, “What is a Ham Lake?”
Well, among other things, the town smack dab in the middle of Anoka County is the home of the T-Box Bar & Grill (1431 147th Av. NE., Ham Lake, 763-413-9950, tboxbarandgrill.com), an underappreciated destination for food and wine lovers.
Wine buyer Pender and owner Corey Burstad started in 2008 with a very ambitious list and scaled back for a bit. “We’re really in cabernet country,” Pender said. “The lion’s share of what we sell is cabernet and chardonnay.” But they have expanded their horizons since chef Sam Collins came aboard. “Wherever he took the food, we earned the trust of our customers and have been able to spread out with the wines.”
Sometimes that means interesting variations for their core constituency — White Rock and Stony Hill are Napa wines that don’t drink like Napa wines — but it also means altering the wine list four times a year when the menu changes. And having treats such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape by the glass from time to time.
And it can mean challenging assumptions. Pender is a big fan of Spanish wineries such as R. Lopez de Heredia, whose bottles aren’t released until a decade or more after the vintage year.
“People would be looking at the list and seeing a 2003, and they’d say, ‘So, you can’t sell that wine?’ ” he recounted, “and I’d say no, that’s the current vintage. And recently chef had a bison tartare special, and I paired the Heredia Grovonia with it and people said, ‘Wait, you want me to drink a white wine that’s more than 10 years old with this?’ And I’d say yes.
“It’s just a matter of gaining their trust.” And getting them to drive to Ham Lake.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.