Presentation, pairings, and personalization to local wineries are among factors to consider when curating the perfect wine list.
For a steakhouse named after a French art period, a scrappy wine selection simply would not do. At Rococo Steak in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, a red-glass chandelier is suspended above the eclectic dining space. Diners linger over dishes like bacon flights and a 14-ounce Duroc pork chop in guava sauce, all the while seated among splashy, vibrant art.
Joe Orsino injected an upscale vibe into the wine list when he opened the restaurant nearly two years ago. For example, to complement a 22-ounce dry-aged, bone-in ribeye steak ($49), a diner might order a bottle of 1976 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti ($6,000). Napa Cabs bump up against old Bordeaux. There are also around 40 Champagnes by the bottle. Prices on the list range from $28 to $7,200.
Within its first year Rococo achieved Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence, a rare feat within such a short period of time.
“It’s a very serious wine list, but we wanted to have fun with it,” Orsino says. Wines by the bottle—numbering nearly 650 and dating back to 1906—are grouped into witty categories like Wine & Peace, Le Collage, and Grape Expectations, which helps to strip away any pretentiousness. Another grouping, Sommelier Selections, highlights a handful of wines that are chosen nightly to pair with the current menu offerings. There are also 25 wines by the glass.
Amassing this collection has taken time and patience. “We go to auctions, we speak to suppliers, and we’ve also purchased from other restaurants,” Orsino explains. When he opened another restaurant, in fact, the space he purchased included wine assets from a shuttered restaurant, which he quickly allocated to Rococo Steak.
This summer he wrapped up construction on a second cellar to double the capacity at Rococo Steak. Both cellars are visible from the dining room through a wall of glass. With a wine collection this large, organization is key, so that when a customer places an order, time is not lost retrieving the wine. Orsino uses BinWise, a cloud-based system, to manage the inventory.
Whether building an elite wine collection like that at Rococo Steak or a more moderately priced list, it’s important to consider customer demographics first. What do diners expect when visiting the restaurant?
For Jeff Creamer, wine director at Brix in Napa, California, the answer to that question was all about local sourcing. Brix has been a popular choice for tourists and locals alike since it opened in 1986, and Creamer knows his guests want wines made from grapes grown up the road, like Cabernet Sauvignon from the Oakville AVA. To that end, he’s built a wine list that is 95 percent Napa and Sonoma selections.
“Napa Cab is the bulk of the collection,” he says. “Oakville wines, in particular, are a prominent part of the list. We go deeper on wines that are either connected to the restaurant or are classics in Napa.”
Opus One Winery and Harlan Estate are two examples. Because the family who owns Brix also owns a nearby winery (Kelleher Family Vineyard), those wines—an estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc—are served, too.
Another key consideration when building a wine list is to determine what pairs well with the food. Attila Gyulai, sommelier at Embeya in Chicago, which opened three years ago, desires wines that will pair with modern Asian cuisine.
“We actually eliminated wines that don’t work with our cuisine at all, like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot,” Gyulai says. Furthermore, California and Australian wines are too tannic, oaky, and high in alcohol, he says. “Any big, punchy wine will obscure [Asian] flavors—especially ginger and lemongrass.”
These thoughtful decisions resulted in a list of 80 Rieslings, including German, Austrian, and French selections, some dating back to 1999, and Châteauneuf-du-Papes, stretching back to the 1990s. In fact, the restaurant is known for hosting Chicago’s largest Riesling/Gewürztraminer selection. There are also close to 75 red Burgundys, plus Spanish wines—Tempranillo, Garnacha, and Rioja.
“People come here for a unique wine experience,” Gyulai says.
That’s also the case at Brix. “When people come in and say ‘We’d like a recommendation for Oakville Cab,’ that opens the door for a conversation about our wine list,” Creamer says. He also sources from wineries, particularly when building a vertical offering (consecutive vintages of the same wine), and will buy from companies that purchase cellars and lots with the purpose of putting them on the market.
Confidence in these companies has soared, Creamer notes: “Years ago, the only way you could really be confident about the provenance of these wines was buying from a top-notch auction house.”
To market the wine list, Creamer reaches out to local tourism and entertainment magazines for publicity. Brix is also included in the Napa Valley Vintners Association list of local restaurants that offer Napa-centric wine lists, meaning at least 50 percent of the wines are from that area. But the best marketing tool has been showcasing the wines. One-third of the collection is on display in a private room off the main dining room, walled in with glass.
Similarly, the impressive wine collection offered by Eight K inside posh Viceroy Snowmass in Colorado—just up the hill from Aspen—is fully on display. Diners and hotel guests love to snap photos of the custom, climate-controlled display, which stores between 6,500 and 7,000 bottles and was designed by Jean-Michel Gathy. On the 24-page wine list are 800 selections.
“This is my wine storage as well as my wine display,” says sommelier and certified wine educator Rick Lang, who is Eight K’s assistant director of food and beverage. Despite having managed cellars on both coasts for 25 years, he had to look long and hard at Aspen’s palate to discern the best wine collection.
“There’s certain things I know are no-brainers: Champagne, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon,” Lang says, but he shies away from putting a wine on the list merely for prestige. “If nobody ever buys it, it’s just going to sit there and take up space.”
Knowing a third of his clientele is international led him to shift to domestic selections. “When they come to the United States, they want to try American wines,” he says. However, grower Champagnes, Pinot Noirs, and Rhone varietals from France are also included.
Despite its impressiveness, rarely does the display alone sell a high-ticket wine. Instead, it speaks to the collection as a whole. “Nobody orders a $1,000 bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon based on seeing it in the case,” Lang says, adding that wine knowledge or spotting a wine on the list is often what seals the deal. But he has seen Pinot Noirs and grower Champagnes prompt a sale if they are spotted in the display.
Not every restaurant has the luxury of a footprint that will support large cellars, and restaurants in tight urban areas often lack adequate storage space for wine, forcing them to either compromise with a slimmed-down list or opt for off-site storage.
Gabriele Guidoni, sommelier at Florian in New York City, was forced to develop creative solutions for his 1,700-bottle collection, which was translated to 170 bottles on the list, nearly 75 percent Italian, and comprising many organic growers. Although French Champagnes and domestic wines are also on the list, the goal is to educate diners about “the realities in Italian winemaking,” he says.
Server stations—holding water glasses, flatware and napkins—were custom-made to also accommodate wine bottles, hence the cabinetry in the restaurant’s corridors and throughout the dining room hold wine, too. “Restaurants are not usually built around a wine list. You create a wine list after you open,” Guidoni says. “You adapt.”
“You somehow try to make wine look like part of the package,” he adds. To that end, above the bar—backlit, with an amber glow—is an art installation crafted from wine labels. Bronze sculptures created by the restaurant’s owner hold bottles of wine, too.