Two Great Restaurant Cellars Built from Scratch
Why does one restaurant charge $20 more for a certain bottle of wine than the place next door? Why is your favorite cult cabernet perennially on the list at the irritatingly loud steakhouse you don’t like, and never on the list at the low-key place you love? And where were the hidden values on that list you were looking at last night? If you’re a wine-lover who’s ever spent an evening in a top restaurant—which means most of us—it’s almost certain you’ve wondered about the answers to these questions. And you can find them, not so much by reading between the lines as by looking behind the winelist pages, at how those hundreds of bottles got there in the first place.
A Tale of Two Coasts
When David Rosoff, the wine director and managing partner of Opaline restaurant in Los Angeles, conceived of his wine list, a mantra that ran through his brain. It went something like this: No buttery chardonnays, no expensive, super-allocated Napa cult wines, and nothing that has been, to quote the cover sheet of the finished list, “smothered by new oak barrels.”
Banned from the list were the safe, easy-to-order crowd pleasers—the Kendall Jackson chardonnays, the Santa Margarita pinot grigios, the Rosemont shirazes. Instead, diners were going to be left to puzzle it out between, say, a Tre Monti albana from Emilia Romagna and a Domaine Brana Irouleguy, made from a blend of gros manseng and petit manseng. And anyone with a penchant for American wines could choose from four (out of 125 bottles), and none a cabernet sauvignon.
To say this is a gutsy—if somewhat rigid—position to take is putting it lightly. After all, Californians their local wines, often to the exclusion of all others. And in LA, a flashy, recognizable brand, be it an actor, watch or bottle of wine, is arguably valued far beyond the esoteric and unknown.
Around the same time, but on the other side of the country and with an entirely different approach, William Sherer was putting together the list at Atelier in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York City. With over 1,350 bottles, there would necessarily something here for everyone. All the major players would be present, the Comte de Vosges, the Sassicaias, the Insignias and Dominuses (or is that Dominii?). And these stars would keep company with lesser-known wines—a selection of Austrian grunier veltiners, a range of small and as-of-yet-unheralded California producers and regional esoterica like a Bourgeuil or two from the Loire. Sherer even decided to include a few dark horses, like a Sula sauvignon blanc from Nasik, India. He needed depth in older vintages, too—like an $11,000 1870 Lafite-Rothschild—and several verticals, such as a selection of Penfolds Grange dating back to 1966.
Now that both of these wine lists are finished, it might seem that the one thing they have in common is that they have absolutely nothing in common. They’re as different as chenin blanc and shiraz—or New York and LA, for that matter. And yet the thought processes and choices that went into them are strangely similar.
The Soul of a New List
Of course, that raises the question: just how is a wine list put together? What machinations go on behind the scenes that result in a particular group of bottles being offered between those leather, plastic or paper-bound covers?
According to both Sherer and Rosoff, certain strategies come into play whether the wine list is for a small, quirky, neighborhood bistro or a grand, pull-out-all-the-stops-and-bring-on-the-foie-gras hotel restaurant. As a wine directors or sommelier, you have balance your own vision, your budget, the different price points you need to meet, the food the restaurant serves, your relationships with vendors, and the availability of the wines in question, to arrive in the end at a document that will both entice wine-knowledgeable diners and not intimidate someone who just wants to order a pleasant bottle of vino to drink with dinner. And after you’ve managed that, you might relax by walking back into the kitchen and finding seven or eight plates to juggle.
But at its best, the soul of a wine list, just like that of a menu, reflects the sensibility, resourcefulness and creativity of the person behind it. This is why, though the route may be the same from restaurant to restaurant, the destination often proves as individual as the wines themselves.
“The concept of our wine list is dictated by my personal taste and what I believe in,” David Rosoff says. “It only includes the kinds of wines I think are, number one, well-made, and, number two, honestly made—which are two different things.”
To clarify, he points to the credo on the ivory cover sheet of the list. “Basically, honest wines are truthful expressions of their varieties, and the place and time where those grapes were grown. They are not overly manipulated or masked by oak, and generally you’re talking about hand-crafted, handpicked and often organically farmed grapes.”
For Rosoff, holding to this vision meant choosing almost solely regional European wines. “This is my taste and will probably continue to be until somebody can prove to me that the New World is making things that represent better value and food affinity,” he says, adding, “This is obviously a list that’s not driven by the market. I could put a bunch of expensive Napa wines on and my check average would go up exponentially overnight. And if I were about to go out of business unless I put Sonoma-Cutrer chard on the list I probably would opt to stay in business. But I don’t see that happening.”
Granted, this may be a radical example of a wine list in service to a philosophy—woe to the customer at Opaline who happens to like fat, buttery chardonnays—but it is true that having a strong mission can actually make it easier to put together a list than simply collecting a group of wines the sommelier happens to like.
Back in New York, William Sherer had fewer ideological concerns and a lot more bottles to stock, but his vision, while not as fervent, was just as personal.
“For me the first priority was putting together a wine list that’s an attraction unto itself, a world class wine list,” he says as we sit in the plush celadon green-accented bar that’s adjacent to the equally plush but beiger dining room. In Sherer’s universe, this means striving for a list that will win loads of prestigious awards, and, he hopes, lure customers away from the restaurant’s high-flying competitors: Daniel, Alain Ducasse, Jean Georges.
Uptown vs. Downtown
Here’s something to think about. Even before you sit down at your table and pick up the wine list, there’s a sense in which a good restaurant already knows who you are. And the wines on the list in front of you have been chosen with that in mind. It’s not as sinister as it sounds, though. Look at it this way: Atelier is located in a Ritz-Carlton hotel that occupies some of the most expensive real estate in New York City (directly across the street from Central Park). Rooms cost upwards of $600 per night. Opaline is in West Hollywood, a hipper, younger area populated mostly by people with multiple but not necessarily obvious tattoos, and the occasional pierced body part. Opaline’s prices for its wines—most bottles fall into the $35 to $45 category—is just right for the neighborhood and identity of the restaurant, but that formula wouldn’t work for Atelier. The typical customer here either has an expense account, is celebrating a major life milestone, or is wealthy enough not to care. Those $300 bottles of Cos d’Estournel and the $3,000 bottles of Romane Conti that customers want to see on Sherer’s wine list would be ridiculous on Rosoff’s. And vice-versa: if a group at Atelier wanted a bottle of bubbly to toast Grandmama on her 80th birthday, or to celebrate that closing of a major deal, Opaline’s $50 Jean Milan Brut Champagne—lovely though it is—would likely lose out to Dom Perignon every time.
Show Me the Money
Another element in the creation of a wine list is, of course, money. Opaline’s opening budget for wine was $16,000; Atelier’s was close to $250,000. But true to the old chestnut that no matter what one has it’s never enough, for both men it wasn’t, but they stuck to the numbers they were given. For Sherer this meant biding his time to fill in a lot of the older vintages he loves. For Rosoff, it meant buying the pricier bottles, such as the $275 1982 Grand Puy Lacoste (the most expensive bottle on the list) on consignment.
“Generally you wind up paying more for consignment wines,” Rosoff says, “or your mark-up is lower than on other wines. But boy, I’ve got things on my list that I couldn’t have had when I opened the restaurant otherwise.”
Then there’s the food. Though in the distant past putting together the wine list was often independent from anything going on in the kitchen, this has changed. Now a restaurant’s cuisine should play a role in the development of the list. Rosoff was in an enviable position because, as the managing partner and the person who actually wrote Opaline’s business plan, he could and did put the wine list first. When he hired the chef, David Lentz, it was with the stipulation that he cook the food Rosoff thought would work well with the wines.
“The food is very ingredient-oriented,” Rosoff says. “It’s not about plating and presentation. And it’s exactly the same with the wines. I want to taste everything in every wine, and I don’t want any ingredient in the wine that doesn’t need to be there, like extraneous oak.” The resulting menu is what one might call regional European bistro food influenced Mediterranean flavors, and by what’s available at the farmers’ market; and while that sounds a bit confusing, when placed in the context of Opaline’s wine list, it fits seamlessly.
But Rosoff is the exception. Most wine directors don’t wield much if any control over the menu. At Atelier, the chef Gabriel Kreuther is from Alsace, so Sherer has made sure that the wines of the region and those in a similar style are well represented. Kreuther’s modern French cuisine is very fish and seafood oriented, so along with the requisite heavy-hitting Bordeaux, California and Australian wines Sherer’s customers crave, he also makes sure to have enough Burgundies and other pinot noirs.
Is More Always Better?
When you sit down at a table and the sommelier hands you a wine list the size of War and Peace, are you thrilled or alarmed? Half the diners in a restaurant may answer one way and half the other, one of the problems with a list of 1,350. As Sherer notes, his task with the Atelier list was multiple: to give his customers the big name wines they knew they wanted, to offer a number of more unusual wines that they would want if they knew about them, to be able to include all the wines he himself was passionate about, and also, somehow, to organize the list into something both manageable and un-intimidating to the wine-neophyte. To this end, he made sure he included several of what he calls “comfort zones.”
“I think people are used to, and so there should be, a good selection of certain wines in certain price ranges,” he says. “A good sauvignon blanc at $30 a bottle is something a restaurant should provide. California chardonnays should be about $60 to $70, and a restaurant should have a supply of those. And you should be able to buy cheap cabernet, about $50 to $60 a bottle.”
Sherer also made sure that the list not only encompassed a number of types of wine, but also a variety of styles within each type (such as both modern and traditional styles of Barolo or Meursault). This allows him to tap into his creative side when talking with a diner: “It’s like being an artist with more colors on my palette to paint with. I have more flexibility and a greater ability to pull from a variety of wines to go with the specific needs of the guest, and help them get exactly the right Chablis for their tastes. The work of the sommelier is finding out exactly what the guest wants as far as style.”
Finally, in terms of presentation, Sherer opted for the traditional style of organizing wines by region, though he does take some liberties. For example, if you’re looking for a crisp Chablis to enjoy with Kreuther’s oysters, you’ll be disappointed if you turn to the white Burgundy section, where none exist. Instead, you’ll find the Chablis listed a few pages earlier, along with wines from the Loire, Alsace, Germany, and Austria under a mysterious heading labeled “Northern European Whites.”
“It’s a category I came up with myself, ,” Sherer says by way of explanation, “but I think the wines share a certain flavor profile and they work very well with the food.”
Rosoff’s list, unsurprisingly, takes a different tack. He broke the red and white wines down into 3 categories—light, medium and heavier bodied—a strategy found more and more often on wine lists these days. Then within those categories, Rosoff lists the wines by relative weight. The lightest wine he sells, a 2001 Von Simmern Erbacher Marcobrunn Kabinett riesling from the Rheingau, is first on the list, while the densest, a 1998 Clos des Papes Chateauneuf-du-Pape, is the last. Rosoff also made sure to list the grape variety next to each wine, so that those looking for a cabernet would know they could find it not only in a Bordeaux, but also blended with garnacha in Rene Barbier’s 1999 Clos Mogador from the Priorat, Spain, or blended with sangiovese in Capezzana’s Carmignano Barco Reale from Tuscany.
“I knew I was going to have wines that Americans find esoteric,” he explains, “and I felt I needed to make them more accessible. Not everybody can speak the language of Languedoc-Rousillon, but everybody can speak the language of light, medium and heavy. By taking unapproachable wines and making them approachable, I thought, in a sense, I could market the wine list a little bit.”
Bring on the Wine
Once everything else is taken into account—structure, cuisine, budget, customers, price points, and so on—then the real work of putting the list together begins: choosing the actual wines. Since vintages sell out and distribution changes, this task is best left to the last minute. Rosoff chose his in four weeks, albeit four weeks of near all-nighters.
“I don’t think I could have done it without a spreadsheet I made,” he says. “Two years ago, even before we had the space finalized, I sat down with Excel and broke the wines I wanted into categories, then divided up the kinds of wines I knew I wanted on the list. I said, ‘Well, I want Sancerre and chenin blanc from the Loire and I want riesling.’ And I assigned them categories. So by the time I sat down with my vendors to choose the wines, I was just filling slots. It was such a beautiful constraint. I could say: ‘love that wine, doesn’t fit on the list right now,’ whereas if I had no parameters I would have been hard-pressed to say no—but if that happens, then you sit there the night before you open with a room full of boxes of wine and no idea what to do with them. So I’m glad I handcuffed myself like that going in. It made everything much easier.”
Sherer’s constraints were more fluid. His first task was amassing the star-wines he knew his list had to have. The next phase would normally have been to augment and refine the list, adding the lesser-known wines that he wanted to be able to introduce to people, but before he could do this he had a middle step to contend with: The Ritz-Carlton Corporate Core List. A list of wines that are required to appear on all Ritz-Carlton wine lists, Sherer was mandated to include about 30 to 40 of them. “It’s an attempt to maximize discounts for economies of scale, obviously,” he says. This could deaden the personality of a smaller list, but for Sherer, those wines simply vanished in the blend, like that little bit of Trebbiano in some Chianti Classicos.
The bottles are in the cellar, their names entered into a database on the computer. The specially-ordered paper is on the shelf, the fonts assigned, the covers chosen (opalescent, pale-green leather for Opaline, and dark-brown leather, weighty and tome-like for Atelier.) Anyone would think: The work is done; the wine list is complete. Just turn the printer on, open the flood gates and let the thirsty masses converge. And in one sense this is true; Rosoff managed to fill his particular kinds of slots, and Sherer, his. For the moment, in terms of the wine list at least, everything is set.
But not for long. Even as soon as the end of the first Saturday night both Rosoff and Sherer were re-evaluating all their hard work in light of the one variable neither could fully account for in advance: the customers.
Because in the end, a good wine list is more than just a dry directory of bottles. It’s a tool that can open up the dialogue between the sommelier and the diner; and, ultimately, it’s this back and forth that will give the list its final shape and content. Since opening, Sherer has learned that that his customers favor red Bordeaux, white Burgundy, and weren’t ordering as much of the Italian wines as he thought would. And Rosoff, after seven months, admits to adding a few more California wines to the list (albeit from producers who are not exactly household names). Thus, the continuing challenge of maintaining a wine list unfolds; that is, giving the people what they want while persuading them to want what the restaurant has to give. It’s a precarious balance, forever in flux—which just goes to show, though a wine list may be printed on paper, it’s definitely not written in stone.