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?