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Unconventional Wine Lists

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 15, 2008 1:09pm ET

Two restaurants I encountered in Honolulu had sophisticated wine programs, but you might never know it from looking at their wine lists. One, which I wrote about last week, doesn’t even have a wine list. The other has a short list that only reflects about 15 percent of what’s actually in the cellar.

Is this good or bad? It’s easy to dismiss either until you look carefully at the quality of wines on offer and their suitability for the food. I wonder if their approach would make you happy or frustrated.

Chef Mavro selects a different wine to go with each dish on its multicourse menus. Four times a year the staff and some invited wine-savvy guests sit down to a tasting of chef-owner George Mavrothalassitis’ new dishes and an array of wines picked by the restaurant’s sommelier. For each dish, the biggest vote getter goes on the menu as the wine option for that course.

In my 10 years of eating at the restaurant on trips to Oahu, the wines are good, and they often get better with the dish paired with them.

You could order a whole bottle of any one wine and drink it through the whole meal, but hardly anyone does. And there’s a modest corkage fee for those who prefer to bring their own wines. But does the absence of a standard-type wine list please you, infuriate you, or make you want to reject the restaurant as a wine destination?

Vino is a wine bar started by Chuck Furuya, one of the first Americans to pass the Master Sommelier exam. He co-hosted a PBS television cooking program with Roy Yamaguchi of Roy’s. He is also the wine director for dk restaurants, which includes Sansei, Hiroshi and dk Steakhouse. He has about 450 different wines in the cellar at Vino, but he only puts about 75 on Vino’s published list to go with the full dinner menu.

Why hide the wines? "I like to surprise people," he shrugged. "I get an idea what they like and find something they never heard of. I love it when they give me the big smiles when they love the wine."

On one hand, I would certainly like to look over the options and pick what interests me, rather than what Chuck thinks I might like. Balanced against that, he certainly knows what he has, and in my experience he comes up with something appropriate, often surprising, and always good.

To give you an idea, Furuya tapped some nice wines for me on my visit last week: the Château d’Esclans Domaine Sacha Lichine Provence Rosé 2006, one of the best pink wines I’ve ever had; Terredora Falanghina 2007, one of my favorite wines from Campania; and Elio Altare Arborina 2001, a terrific Nebbiolo from Piedmont (at an astonishingly reasonable $14 a glass).

Time was, no restaurant would put every wine it owned on its wine card. Young wines needed time in the cellar before being "ready" to serve, an idea that seems rather quaint in these days of drinking big reds early to enjoy their fruit character (and their modern, well-modulated tannins, too, I might add). Even today some restaurants in rural Italy don’t even have wine lists. They have cellars full of interesting wines, but you get to them via a conversation with the proprietor, not by perusing a list.

"I’m here every day," Furuya hastened to add when I asked him about his "hidden" wines. "It wouldn’t work if the restaurant were on autopilot. I have to be here because I am the wine list.”

I wonder, though. Would the lack of a complete list frustrate you or add to the adventure?

Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  December 15, 2008 1:43pm ET
I was a partner in and the wine director of a Grand Award restaurant for several years, but I hate looking at restaurant wine lists. I always let the wine steward select wines for me, and I feel strongly that I drink better, better-suited wines as a result
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  December 15, 2008 1:54pm ET
I typically enjoy doing the wine recommended by the chef/sommelier. This will get me out of any box I might then be in and to try new wines.However, if those recommendations and the abbreviated wine list consists primarily of 10 Benzigers and 12 Mondavis, one for every varietal, with a few others thrown in, I'm not very impressed.
Brian Forrest
Portland, OR —  December 15, 2008 7:46pm ET
I almost universally travel or go out to eat with a few bottles from my own cellar. However, I always review wine lists and sometimes ask what they have "off list". For me, I enjoy reading what wines are offered, but I have also found with a reasonably small sampling that I can get a "feel" for what wines the sommelier is interested in, even without knowing the exact bottles not listed. In the end, if the full range of offerings is in line with my interests, I'm happy, and particularly so if the restaurant/resort doesn't have exorbitant mark-ups.
Jim Mcclure
DFW, Texas —  December 15, 2008 11:37pm ET
When a tasting/pairing menu is offered, I always enjoy trying what the chef and sommelier have come up with. When I'm with company that isn't as into trying as much a variety of wines as I am though, I think a knowledgeable steward can be more than sufficient. Still, I enjoy seeing for myself all the options. Not only does it give me an idea of the overall breadth of what's available, but also because sometimes a bottle that's really special to me will be on there that the steward wouldn't know to mention and I wouldn't think to ask about. I've changed the entire direction of my meal before when a certain bottle jumps out at me from a menu, and that wouldn't have happened without a good wine list to peruse.
John Shuey
Carrollton, TX —  December 16, 2008 9:15am ET
Examples such as these are becoming more common...and I detest (as well as avoid) them! What is really involved is a chef or wine steward saying to PAYING customers "I know what is best for you, whether you like it or not". My choice may not be "best" (as determined by some expert) for a particular dish or menu, but it is MY choice! There are too many customer-centered businesses out there to waste my hard-earned dollars fueling the egos of a handful of food/wine snobs.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  December 16, 2008 1:06pm ET
I'm not sure I'd like all lists to be like Chuck's, but given that it IS Chuck's list, then I'm fine with it. He's one of the best at what he does, and his passion for wine is amazing. Put yourself in Chuck's hands and you'll have a memorable meal!
Ryan Tatsumoto
Kaneohe, HI —  December 17, 2008 1:09am ET
We were seated just behind you at Vino on Saturday. Intended on offering a glass (as part of the usual Hawaiian hospitality) but Chuck mentioned that your visit was strictly pleasure so I didn't want to intrude. Chuck not only makes wine suggestions on his own but also makes recommendations (off list) based on what you say you want or like.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 17, 2008 2:43am ET
Thanks for the aloha thoughts, Ryan. You wouldn't have been intruding. Maybe next time!
Jeffrey Marks
Washington, DC —  December 17, 2008 12:50pm ET
I completely disagree that there is something anti-consumer about the restaurant picking the wines. I compare it to a restaurant I went to a few months ago where EVERYTHING on the plate is a la carte -- and I didn't like it. Let the chef put the whole plate together. Providing the beverage is just an extension of that. While I don't always look for the restaurant to decide pairings, they are providing a complete experience. If they fail to pair well, that is a problem, not with concept but with execution.
Laura L Marquez
Scottsdale, AZ —  December 17, 2008 8:30pm ET
I've never had bad luck with a somm's suggested wine, assuming, of course, that we've got the food selected first. Wine lists are very useful...for determining their markup. If it's too high, I don't bother with the somm.; I cut my loses and pick something off the list.
Eric P Perramond
Colorado Springs, CO —  December 18, 2008 9:41am ET
Harvey,A fun topic - I enjoy places with a 'short list' of odd wines, and suggested pairings (2-3 per dish) as a way to explore new combinations or unusual food-varietal matches. On that topic, have you tasted Waters Syrah (or Cab) out of Washington...with lamb? I'm not sure I've ever seen a review of their wines...
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 18, 2008 12:05pm ET
Eric, I did sample the Waters 2005s but I found too many off flavors and chose not to review them. They haven't submitted any further vintages.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 18, 2008 12:11pm ET
That's a great point, Laura. Also, if the sommelier makes a suggestion, then the onus is on her. If you don't like it, you're under no obligation to drink it. That makes it worth taking a chance. Like you, I often find myself pleasantly surprised by wines I don't know that the sommelier picks. (On the other hand, it was several sommelier's suggestions that demonstrated to me that I don't much like Slovenian wines.)
Patrick Loomis
Napa, CA —  December 18, 2008 12:20pm ET
Mr. Shuey, do you also discount the professional opinons of your mechanic, surgeon, or other trained professionals because their recommendations are not "your choice"? While taste is a subjective thing, isn't the definition of a "snob" someone who ignores the advice of professionals because they think they know more about the topic whether they do or not?

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