Sunday, July 28, 2013

Italian Restaurants in America with Great Italian Wine Lists

Rainbow over the Tanaro
I got a call recently from a pal in back home. He was going to try out a new Italian spot and would report back to me.

A few hours later he texted me. “I called the owner over, complimented them on the food. Said I won’t come back on (account of) the wine list. There are many great Italian wines in the $40-60 range. With entrees at $25, a wine at $100 isn’t a balanced list.”

He then called me to give me the blow-by-blow. The bottom line was the owner asked him which wines he wanted on the list. My friend said it wasn’t a matter of which individual wine; it was a matter of having a better balanced wine list. He remarked to me, in closing, that he didn't think the owner of the restaurant got the message.

I took a look at the list. There were a dozen or so Chardonnays, mostly from Napa and Sonoma. Same with Cabernets. There was an “other white wine” section with five wines, one from Argentina, two from Texas and two from Italy. Two of the wines were Pinot Grigio. The Italian red wine section , there were seven wines, a Chianti under $50, a Super Tuscan blend under $75 and five wines ranging from $130+ to $270+. Clearly the wine list was a disappointment to my friend. But on the restaurant web page, the owners claim to be wine lovers and collectors. Where is the disconnect?

Surely there is no lack of desire from those of us in the trade to try and help them figure this kind of thing out. Maybe they hired a consultant. In any event, I’m not sure who the target audience is. I can't even say (if these folks were to ask me to come over and talk to them about these matters) if they would understand what I would be trying to communicate. It might come off as some indecipherable Sicilian dialect. But that’s probably not going to happen any time soon. Not that I would ever ignore their call.

What I’d like to do, in place of that, is to point them, or anyone interested, to several wine lists around the country where folks have made an outstanding effort at bringing Italian wines to the table with their food. Seeing as I just returned from Northern California let’s start with a new one in Oakland.

A16 in Oakland is worth the trip for the Sicilian section alone
A16 Rockridge is the sister of the already established A16 in San Francisco. I love what Shelly Lindgren and her team has done. I don’t think I have ever seen a wine list, anywhere, that breaks Sicilian wine country up, into three areas, Western Sicily, Eastern Sicily and Southern Sicily. This is a wine list that also has the requisite Chardonnays and Cabernets on the list (about the same amount as the one back home) but the Italian selections far outweigh the domestic offerings. There are no Super Tuscans to be found on the list. There is a commitment to their category, of showing wines from the South. This isn't a restaurant that is saying, “But our people are asking for Caymus Cabernet and we must listen to them.” This is a place that is making the ardent effort at being genuine and true to their inspiration. I cannot contain my excitement when I see the wines they have gathered on that list. Truly inspirational, but also a list that exemplifies passion, involvement and enthusiasm for Italian wine with Italian food.

I would point them to that restaurant tell them to go there for a weekend and eat and drink and the come back to Texas and make some changes.

Frasca's heraldic tome makes me want to move to Colorado
Not as far away, in Boulder, there is Frasca. While A16 orients from the southern part of Italy (or Central- South) Frasca take their cues from Northern Italy and Friuli. Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey and Chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, along with wine director Matthew Mather, and sommelier Carlin Karr, garner their inspiration from the world of great wine. And yes, there are great Cabernets and Chardonnays and Burgundies and Mosel Rieslings on the list, but it’s all about the balance of the list. There isn’t an “other white wine” section. Instead, for the white wines, there was some thought put into it and three sections were devised:

• Crisp & Clean, Light & Lean
• Floral, Aromatic, Exotic
• Full Bodied, Rich & Round

Yes, it is a large list, but that isn’t the point. The issue is about balancing the food with the wines, not cowering to the supposed needs of the local diners. Boulder isn’t any more or less sophisticated than Dallas. But again, the owners have made the commitment to not just talk the talk, but to put it out there on the wine list. And folks come from all over the world to dine at Frasca.

Il Buco's Vineria makes urban pressures seem more manageable
Rounding out the trio, in New York, Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, is a newish place run by a friend of mine, Roberto Paris. Roberto pulled himself out of the New York vortex to spend some time in Thailand, de-urbanizing his mind. Just when he thought he was out, he was pulled back in to Le Grande Mela by an owner who just had to have him running the new place. Roberto is a very thoughtful and contemplative friend, but he also has to make sure he runs a business that will be successful. His wine list is different from A16 and Frasca, and it is another great example of an Italian inspired place with wines that match. Yes, there are Tuscan wines (even Super Tuscans) but they aren’t all $150+. You can walk into Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria and get a fabulous bottle of wine from Italy for $50, which is how it should be. The day I was there Roberto poured me a sparkling Garganega, unfiltered, unsulfured, organic grapes. The wine was unusual, I’ll admit it. It was also strikingly delicious. I don’t remember exactly how much it was by the glass (under $12) but all it took was for someone to tell me a little about it and pour me a glass, with the caveat that if I didn’t like it, they’d whisk it off the table and we’d start again. They didn’t need to do that. It was the right wine. And nobody is going to try a wine like that if all they are offered is some mediocre California Chardonnay. By the way, if you want to get your Californian of at Il Buco, there are several Massican wines available, including their Chardonnay, and these are far from indifferent. So you can have your cake and eat it. One just has to step outside of their self-imposed and bubble of bias.

What it all boils down to is this: making a commitment to being an ambassador for good tasting wines, whether they be from Italy or California or anywhere in the world. Forget what you think your clients are looking for. They are looking for a good time. They are looking to eat and drink well. They might actually be better traveled than you. They probably aren’t looking to take a 2nd mortgage out on their house to be able to eat and drink in your place. How hard is that to figure out? And yet everyday, folks mortgage their lives to get into the business and start up a place. And then wonder why folks like my friend won’t be coming back. They need to attach a set of ears to their hearts and listen to the music that the wine gods are playing.

It wasn’t easy for Shelly Lindgren and her partners when she started A16 in San Francisco, then a bastion and a shrine to California wine. But that little highway in Southern Italy made a deep impression - they took a leap of faith. In May they opened their third restaurant, the one in Oakland.

And Boulder? Not exactly an urban hub. Very limited population and a seasonal one at that, along with a cash-strapped and transient student population. Now Frasca is a mecca, a draw, another reason to visit Colorado.

And New York? Yes, it is an urban aggregation of unparalleled significance. It is the big league. All the more reason for it to fail, with competition, taxes and unfathomable expenses required to keep the doors open.

Sotto's exemplary list in LaLa land
There are others. Sotto, in good old “cooler than anywhere else” L.A., where there are more preconceptions than plastic surgeons. It was as huge a gamble for the team at Sotto to do something like that in L.A. as it seems to be in Dallas. In L.A. there is a wait to get into Sotto. And they don't need to be lengthy lists like A16 and Frasca (Il Buco and Sotto are one-pagers). But what every one of these establishments has done has been to throw out the fear and the past and move forward into the future with a vision. And that can be the best business decision in the long run.

It’s that easy.

The Lists:

written by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W
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