The phrase “there’s never been a better time to be a wine lover” has become a bit of a truism. But for local cork dorks (present company included), only recently has that become the case on the Twin Cities dining scene.
Every week or two, it seems, a restaurant will open (or reopen, as with Travail and Corner Table) with an exciting, dynamic wine list filled with little-known treasures. That actually makes sense in an era of restaurants hewing to high standards in their food sourcing.
“Absolutely, the tendency to move in the direction of farm-to-table applies really well when it comes to wine sourcing,” said Dana Bonelli, general sales manager at local distributor World Class Wines. “The agricultural standard of the producer is definitely being measured by the restaurateur.”
The timing also coincides with the increasingly sophisticated and intrepid nature of local diners, especially younger ones.
“Millennials are far more sophisticated wine drinkers than any generation that has preceded them,” Bonelli said. “There is really no fear about wine. A lot has to do with the fact that there is so much information that the mystery [of wine] has been removed.”
The local selection “has gotten radically better than three or four years ago,” said Jill Mott, a partner at GYST Fermentations.
A case can be made that this movement started a few years back when places such as Meritage, Bachelor Farmer and Tilia came out of the gates with daring, deftly chosen lists. They followed the lead of such stalwarts as Lucia’s, Heartland and Restaurant Alma in turning over their portfolios regularly while retaining some customer favorites.
Soon after that, local spots such as Broder’s Pasta Bar and Scusi invested in preservation systems that allowed them to offer small servings of unusual or unfamiliar wines over several weeks. Meanwhile, restaurant openings abounded: In the past year, the likes of not only GYST but Third Bird, Spoon and Stable, Heyday and Brasserie Zentral launched with stellar and often idiosyncratic inventories.
Over time, a pattern has taken hold. “Restaurants more than ever before are moving in the direction of wines that are not well represented in retail,” said Bonelli.
In addition to distinguishing themselves from retail stores that count heavily on familiar brands for casual drinkers, these restaurateurs also wanted to differentiate themselves from one another. It’s not a reach to say that folks such as Corner Table’s Nick Rancone are curators rather than conservators.
At last fall’s trade tastings held by enterprising distributors, I saw significantly more restaurant folks than at similar events a half-decade ago. As Bonelli noted, “The restaurant scene has become exponentially more inventive.”
None of this would work if a wider array of wines weren’t available and if the portfolios of local distributors had remained stagnant.
Instead, we have seen the emergence of small wholesalers with adventurous portfolios such as Oeno, Tradition, Small Lot and the Libation Project. They have brought in a boatload of stuff from smaller wineries from locales such as Michigan and New York but also are scouring well-trod wine regions from California to France for hidden gems. Many larger wholesalers also are “going deep” in sundry regions.
“[Wholesalers are] taking more risks, but they also see that people are buying more risks,” said Mott, who has joined with GYST co-owners Mel and Ky Guse to bring their own twist to this movement: The restaurant carries several exclusive wines from vintners the partners had met in their travels.
“We asked importers and distributors if they could bring in wines from these amazing small producers that are doing things that are really authentic,” Mott said, “because both the grower wants to do it and we want to do it.”
Now that’s the kind of farm-to-table, or perhaps vineyard-to-table, movement that any wine lover can get behind.
Follow Bill Ward on Twitter: @billward4.