Go big or go small; there’s different ways to imagine a wine list
Illustration by Pop Winson
Just after being seated at Hardware Grill, a friendly waiter asks, “What would you like to drink?” Wine would be nice, but it’s been hardly enough time when the list is a weighty catalogue of 450 bottles. Where to begin? And is all this choice necessary?
“Big or small doesn’t really matter,” says Hardware Grill chef/owner Larry Stewart, the mastermind behind the restaurant’s Wine Spectator award-winning list.
“There’s no magic formula,” he says, but “a great wine list should offer something for everyone’s taste [and] shouldn’t be skewed in any one direction too heavily. It should be approachable and not intimidating.” His list is all that, except that, at 19 pages, the book – complete with a table of contents – is one of the largest in the city. For a neophyte, it can be daunting.
Stewart’s list, like most, is based on a subjective mix of personal taste, menu compatibility, price, saleability and even storage space.
A few pages in the list are revelatory: You can see exactly which regions he has toured and how that has influenced his menu. After 19 years, Stewart’s list is in “maintenance mode.” He updates it twice a year based on customer feedback, trends and personal interests, like his recent fascination with jammy zinfandels. “I’ve been drinking more zinfandels in the last year, and I acquired some interesting styles. The food I do here is robust with strong flavours, and it’s a good match.”
There are downsides to such a large list. It’s difficult to manage, from inventory and ordering to storage and cash flow. Stewart has a six-figure inventory, with hundreds of bottles stored in Hardware Grill’s labyrinth of four different cellars. “I’m not making any interest on it, and some of it you sit on for years. They’re an investment you make.”
Encyclopedic wine lists like Stewart’s are giving way to smaller ones in Edmonton and across North America, thanks to a movement of sommeliers and chefs wanting to take the perceived pretense and cork-sniffing snobbery out of wine.
David Lynch, the veteran sommelier at Babbo, Mario Batali’s famed Manhattan restaurant, boldly waved “good-bye big fat wine lists” in Bon Appetit magazine in 2011, penning a eulogy to the leather-bound, 25-page tomes he helped create. “I learned less is more,” he wrote. “Much as I have come to love parsing the differences among Barolos, it’s my job to find a perfect, textbook Barolo for the person who’s never tried one.”
That’s the mission with Corso 32‘s all-Italian wine list, where Barolo is king. The obsessively fine-tuned Italian menu has an equally concise wine program to match. “First and foremost, we think about what’s going to work with our food,” says chef and co-owner Daniel Costa. “Then we think about what’s good variety by the glass. And then we think about what’s unique and what do we want to be pushing in the wine world. Like right now, we’re trying to push the orange wine movement.” Orange wines – a trend which started at wineries in France, Slovenia and northeastern Italy some 20 years ago and has since expanded to California – are white wines made like red wines, with grape skins left in the juice for longer periods of time.
Costa and his staff travel to Italy frequently and hold monthly tastings. They order wines based on the wisdom of their collective palettes, and work closely with 10 wine reps and four wine shops to craft Corso 32’s relatively svelte 127-bottle list. And even though Costa’s list is not quite a third of Stewart’s, it can still be bewildering if your Italian is rusty.
“We trust our wine reps a lot. And they know not to bring us shit,” he says bluntly. “They bring us stuff they know we’ll be interested in.”
One of those reps is WineQuest, owned by sisters Barbara and Susan Giacomin. They specialize in Italian wines from small, quality producers that fit Corso 32’s concept. With a roster of about 130 wines they, too, are constantly curating what’s in their portfolio. They recently imported the 2014 Capezzana Vin Ruspo – a fruity, crisp ros from Tuscany – that Costa will serve at Corso 32. “It’s a beautiful quality wine, but it’s obscure,” says Susan. “Now we have a champion for this wine who has direct contact with the consumer, and can explain why it’s good.” Without that, her inventory will sell slowly at wine boutiques, since most Edmontonians buy big brand wines at chain liquor outlets.
Sales reps play a big role in getting wines exposed to chefs. They offer restaurants free staff training, sips of what’s new and build relationships on behalf of wineries around the world. WineQuest is one of about 340 liquor sales reps in Alberta that import wine and spirits. Restaurants in turn buy their products directly from the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission or from a retail store.
Wine lists are also shrinking because food menus are, as restaurants become more casual and regionally focused. At The Marc, owners Patrick and Doris Saurette meticulously execute their concept of a French bistro in the prairies. They removed the white linens and perfected a succinct menu of seven appetizers and mains, four desserts and a nightly special where chefs experiment. “If we get out of our lane, we become confusing to the consumer,” says Patrick, whose restaurant goes through about 13,200 bottles a year. “And the concept dictates what wines we purchase.” That is, a modern, not-too-expensive French bistro necessitates a predominantly French wine list that’s just as compact and accessible.
Patrick, a former co-owner at Il Portico, builds his list with input from staff and trusted wine reps, and buys direct from the AGLC. It’s more work, but saves him money. “We purposefully find a zone,” he says, where most of the menu’s 60 bottles are in the $45-$70 sweet spot, and tops out at $145. To drive home his concept of value, he “hand-sells” a small selection of pricier, off-menu wines for those who want to indulge.
“What I learned at Il Portico is there’s a formula to a wine menu,” says Patrick. There is a need to balance recognizable and distinctive choices, so the list appeals to those looking for safe bets, and those searching for something new.
Tools such as the Coravin and Enotri systems, which prevent oxidation by pumping inert gas into an open bottle, offer restaurants win-win options. They can expand their profitable by-the-glass offerings with high-priced rarities, and diners can drink them without investing in a whole bottle.
For the indecisive – or completely lost – all three restaurants also offer “wine flights.” Instead of drinking one large glass, your server can pair half-pours of different wines to match the courses.
Of course, you can forgo the menu entirely and swill a glass at Bibo, with its “Yes, please, pour me some of whatever you have there” approach. There’s no wine list here at Canada’s smallest wine bar. On any given night, Dianna Funnel, the bar’s self-taught sommelier, has a dozen or so bottles open – and just as many seats. The wines’ names are scribbled on a chalkboard in the candelabra-lit room. Chances are, you’ll discover an unpronounceable gem when the pressure of a formal list is gone.
Ultimately, if a wine – no matter how beloved or award-winning – doesn’t sell well, it’s replaced for something that will. And though hard work goes into building the list, the diner gets the final say.