Despite my day job at Sommelier Journal, I don’t spill a lot of ink on wine here. In that, I’ve got nothing but company. Look at the past several restaurant reviews in Westword, the Denver Post & 5280, & you won’t find more than a passing mention of the subject, if that—never mind list specifics or pairing suggestions. Granted, we’re living in a beer town in a cocktail era, & many a local bar program reserves its baskets for those eggs. But wine goes largely ignored even in reviews of restaurants that specialize in it, be it Al Lado or Il Posto.
Over a year ago, I was on a media panel for a Q&A with restaurateurs, & when Fuel Café’s Bob Blair asked pointedly why that was the case, not one of us could give him a satisfactory answer. If ever there was a time for a remedy, however, it might be now, when wine writers themselves are all up in arms about the current state of independent American restaurant-wine programs.
At the center of the recent debate was the charge, led by the New York Post’s Steve Cuozzo & The Gray Report’s W. Blake Gray (of whom I’m a fan, by the way), that too many sommeliers/beverage directors these days are catering exclusively to an oenophilic few rather than to the masses of novice wine drinkers by compiling geeky selections of little-known producers, varietals, regions—undermining their entire raison d’être, namely unpretentious hospitality, in the process. Coming to their defense were the New York Times’ Eric Asimov & the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné—whose counterarguments in favor of progressive wine lists seem, to me, pretty obvious. First & foremost, there’s the matter of concept. A restaurant is built on a philosophy & a vision that determine every aesthetic choice its principals make: if it’s old-school Italian, then it’s old-school Italian, & by all means bring on the Sangiovese to go with the chicken parm. But if it’s farm-to-table, then it’s farm-to-table, in which case boutique wines from organically or biodynamically minded producers make perfect sense alongside the carefully sourced, seasonal food. No one would insist that the chef of a contemporary Asian restaurant has to serve a burger—& that if he doesn’t he’s somehow sniffing at meat-&-potatoes types; why should the wine list alone bear the burden of being all things to all people?
If the answer—as some have suggested—is that wine intimidates people more than food, & that therefore it’s sommeliers’ obligation to throw them the welcoming bone of big-name Chardonnay or Cab, I call BS. One argument that I don’t think has been made, but it seems pretty cut & dried to me, is that unlike food, wine is wine—a single category. Yes, there are thousands of grapes & styles. But very few of us are trained to be sensitive to every single phenolic variable & nuance—& that’s a point in wine’s favor, not proof of its inherent elitism: it means that if you like wine in general, you’re probably going to be OK with most offerings. There’s no real vinous equivalent of palate-challenging ingredients like natto or Limburger or headcheese (with the possible exception of Greek retsina, but that’s a singular case). So I consider highly ironic the claim that to specialize in relatively obscure pours is to be condescending to less-knowledgeable customers: it seems to me condescending instead to assume that they’re too dull or rigid to step out of their comfort zone for even one minute. It’s just a goddamn glass of wine—& let’s face it, half the time it tastes like any other goddamn glass of wine!
But if they are that picky & narrow minded, well, guess what—there are 100 other places they can go. Ultimately, those who say that too few restaurants are offering familiar wines are clearly dining at too few restaurants: they’re only going to the very places that do make a point of catering to adventurous diners & drinkers—the ones that even bother to hire sommeliers to begin with rather than just tasking a manager with pulling from a single distributor’s grab bag! In my book, too few restaurants are taking chances on their selections. For every one with a list that really excites me, there are 10 that toe the line at Malbec & Riesling.
That said, I actually think we’ve got it pretty good here on the Front Range. Putting aside the obvious leaders of the high-end pack—Frasca Food & Wine (& by extension Pizzeria Locale) & Barolo Grill, as well as your trophy showcases like Flagstaff House—numerous venues craft their lists with care & passion, an eye toward discovery, & a belief that dumbing it down is a self-perpetuating act in bad faith. Fuel Café & Il Posto are 2 of them; here are 10 other admittedly very personal favorites (in no particular order)—particularly for their by-the-glass options, which are really where the art of curation’s at.
Black Cat Bistro & Bramble & Hare (kudos to Eric Skokan’s team for the double whammy!)
Sienna Wine Bar
Axios Estiatorio (all Greek)
Beatrice & Woodsley
Lala’s Wine Bar + Pizzeria
The Kitchen Boulder
Osteria Marco (all Italian)
Bin 1884 Cheese Bar (because aside from the BTG list, anything on the shelves of the adjoining wine shop The Empty Bottle is fair game, enoteca style!)
Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar