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Top Wine Restaurants Innovate to Survive Tough Times

New York's Veritas renovates, while San Francisco's Michael Mina moves and Italy's Bottega del Vino finds new owners

Nathan Wesley
Posted: December 9, 2010

Operating a restaurant during the past three years has not been easy. While the economy is slowly improving and some restaurants are reporting better numbers, staying afloat means thinking outside the box these days. Three restaurants with world-class wine programs—Veritas in New York, Michael Mina in San Francisco and Bottega del Vino in Italy, all three of which have won Wine Spectator's Grand Award—are tweaking their recipes to find a way to continue to serve today’s wine-savvy diners.

Between companies trimming their expense budgets and families eating at home more, the industry has taken a big blow since 2007. Hundreds of good restaurants have closed, including great wine restaurants. Earlier this year, New York's Cru, which built one of the nation's best wine programs and was a Grand Award winner from 2005–2010, closed its doors.

After shutting down this past August, Veritas has renovated and reopened with a new chef and a slightly larger wine list. “The restaurant was prohibitive for many people,” said head sommelier Rubén Sanz Ramiro, who takes over for former wine director Tim Kopec. Ramiro joined the restaurant earlier this year before it closed. At that time, guests were limited to prix fixe menus and a wine list long on collectibles. Ramiro hopes the new incarnation will be more approachable.

A large, wooden communal table near the entrance sets the tone for the newly renovated space, which also features blackboard painted walls and iron wine racks. Chef Sam Hazen, formerly of Tao New York and Tao Las Vegas, heads the kitchen, which offers a smart bar menu and goes à la carte in the dining room with entrée prices ranging from $24 to $39.

The wine list, however, will remain mostly unchanged, offering more than 3,000 selections, primarily sourced from owner Park B. Smith’s personal collection. Ramiro said that he has expanded the wines-by-the-glass list and the restaurant’s more affordable market wine list, which now includes about 50 selections under $100. “We really want to create a space where you don’t have to spend X amount of dollars to have a great bottle of wine,” he said.

Michael Mina, a Grand Award winner in San Francisco, has reopened after relocating from the Westin St. Francis on Union Square Park to the former Aqua space on California Street, where Mina himself once presided over the kitchen. “He wanted to go back to his roots,” said Rajat Parr, the wine director for Mina’s restaurant group.

Mina has also installed an outpost of his Bourbon Steak concept to take over the Westin location and its Grand Award–winning wine cellar, which is owned by the hotel. While the number of wine selections has dropped from 2,500 to 1,800 over the past year, Parr said the steak house will continue to offer the same level of wine service as the original Michael Mina. He has, however, changed the wine list’s format to highlight selections that will complement various steak cuts, and he’s added more value-oriented Cabernets.

Parr said the new Michael Mina is an opportunity to redesign the restaurant to better serve a broader clientele, who are looking to dine in a slightly more casual and vibrant environment. As a result, the restaurant has forgone tablecloths and dropped its prix fixe-only policy in favor of an expanded à la carte menu, which features entrées priced between $32 and $46. The wine list currently offers 500 selections focusing on American wines. But Parr expects that to grow to 1,000 selections as he expands the list to spotlight Piedmont wines, which he said pair well with the new menu.

In Verona, Italy, Bottega del Vino has reopened with new owners. A consortium of 12 Amarone producers called the Famiglie dell’Amarone d’Arte, originally formed two years ago to promote the region’s flagship wine, have partnered with local rice producer Gabriele Ferron to purchase the restaurant. The restaurant had closed in July amidst an impasse between the two previous owners, Severino Barzan and Gianni Pascucci, and local courts appointed a representative to preserve and ultimately sell the business on their behalf. (New York's Antica Bottega del Vino, a sister restaurant, is a separate entity and was not affected by the settlement).

“Bottega del Vino is something that is really connected with our history and tradition,“ said Marilisa Allegrini, whose family’s winery is a member of the consortium, along with Lorenzo Begali, Brigaldara, Masi, Musella, Nicolis, Fratelli Speri, Tedeschi, Tenuta Sant'Antonio, Tommasi, Venturini Massimino and Zenato. “[We’re] not there to sell wine but to promote wine, and it will remain Bottega del Vino—not Bottega del Amarone.”

Allegrini said the restaurant has reopened in what she calls a transitional period, but she expects a new menu to roll out in the beginning of 2011. Barzan will continue to be involved in the wine program and the wine list will remain the same.

Cru, owned by collector Roy Welland, was less fortunate than its peers and closed its doors for good this past August. The restaurant had renovated a year earlier after chef Shea Gallante left and added an à la carte menu in favor of its former prix fixe. Wine director Robert Bohr also redesigned the wine list to feature more wines under $100, but heavy staff turnover, including Bohr’s eventual departure to work with celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, foreshadowed the restaurant’s eventual demise.

The location, however, has quickly turned over and Lotus of Siam has replaced it. The original Lotus is a Best of Award of Excellence winner in Las Vegas. The New York location is serving its signature Thai cuisine, as well as offering a similar selection of the food-friendly Rieslings that made the Vegas location a favorite for wine-industry insiders.

All Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners can be found in our searchable database at WineSpectator.com.

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