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Big Plans for an Old Horse

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 7, 2006 5:41pm ET

What does a restaurant do when the fast-growing wine world has rendered its once-glorious wine cellar less of a big deal than it used to be? It could give up, figuring it's not worth it to stay in the game. Or it could reassess its program and invest in making it better for its customers.

I thought about this when I heard that the Plumed Horse, which held a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its wine list for 19 years, had been sold, was undergoing a complete renovation, and had hired a new chef. As it happens, I had just visited the Plumed Horse last spring in Saratoga, Calif., to check up on it.

Several Wine Spectator editors, myself included, visit longstanding Grand Award winners from time to time to confirm that they still deserve the award. The Plumed Horse looked like a prime candidate for demotion because it submitted a list with about 750 wines on it. These days, it takes a minimum of 1,500 to 1,800 wines to qualify for a Grand Award, which goes to fewer than 100 restaurants in the world with exceptional wine cellars.

I went to visit with Klaus Pache, then the owner, and gently explain that the list had not kept up with the times. One thing we do is select a dozen wines from the current list and ask them to produce the bottles. Pache produced all of the wines, in excellent condition, and took me on a tour of the cellar. I discovered hundreds of unopened wines that are not yet on the printed list.

The list plus the cellar was strong in California, especially in mature vintages. The main weakness was depth in Bordeaux, and not quite enough current vintages to bode well for the cellar's future. Although it was a close call, the editors decided to lower the restaurant's status to a Best of Award of Excellence.

So which way would the new owners go? Josh Weeks, the general manager and one of the new partners, put it succinctly. "One of the main goals," he tells me, "is to get the Grand Award back."

Weeks says the new owners are buying trophy 1961, 1959, 1953, 1949 and 1945 Bordeaux that the previous list lacked. But more importantly, they are investing in more recent vintages of Bordeaux, which were not in the cellar either, especially second through fifth growths.

"We also want to beef up the Burgundy and Rhône selections, and add some of the hot German, Spanish and Italian wines that would make it a truly international list," Weeks adds. He expects the final wine count to exceed 2,000 offerings.

The restaurant will close Feb. 17 for what the contractors tell Weeks will be a 60-day remodel. It will include a new showcase wine cellar between the dining room and the bar and an open kitchen. "I don't expect it to finish on time," he adds. "Construction never does. But I'm hoping we can be open by June 1."

The new chef will be Peter Armellino, who is currently Laurent Manrique's No. 2 at Aqua in San Francisco. He first joined Manrique at Campton Place in 2001. I rated Aqua among the top 10 in my recent cover story on San Francisco dining. It was one of only two in town to get two stars from Michelin in its first SF guide this year. Interestingly, sommelier Paul Mekis also came to Plumed Horse from Aqua.

Plumed Horse's food has been pretty staid over the years. "It is pretty subdued," Weeks admits, "but Peter's going to be doing much more modern California cuisine. A lot more seafood."

Armellino will shake things up in Saratoga, a quiet Silicon Valley suburb. Maybe the wine list will, too.

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