Drinkers searching for exclusive experiences are tempted to dip their toes–or rather, their noses–into a brilliant syrah or chardonnay that can only be found this side of the equator.
Ask for the wine list at the Firehouse Restaurant in Sacramento, California, and you’ll be presented with a tome 96 pages long. The encyclopedia delineates 2,400 bottles that range in habitat from South Africa and New Zealand to the restaurant’s Napa Valley backyard–and they’re all tucked neatly into Firehouse’s cellar.
In a hyper-competitive market, fine dining establishments continue to define themselves with hard-to-find wine lists, and the Firehouse has made a name for itself in California by the vines it aligns with.
The sommelier at Firehouse is Paul Marsh, who has run along all the edges of the wine business–growing, selling, winemaking–and combined them into a perfect job.
“It’s mostly my job to bring smaller producers to the guests and that’s, once again, another joy,” Marsh says. “Once you see their eyebrows raise and their faces lift, that’s when you know you’ve found that right wine and turned them on to something that might ordinarily be passed by your big box stores or what you’d see in magazines, the super ratings wines.”
To restaurants looking to craft an exceptional wine list or strengthen their current selection, Marsh has one suggestion: think outside the box.
“A lot of times, a seller or wine buyer will build a list around what they love or what they may think people are reading about,” he explains. “Find what you think might be a good fit to raise some eyebrows and at the same time, work with the cuisine you have.”
Marsh warns against the catch 22 of name recognition in wine, which he calls useful, due to the already established marketing for the wine, but far less intimate.
“I love the smaller producers that really know how to coax out little things,” he says. “The little producers you might have driven by on your way to the big-name winery.”
Rather than a specific flavor or specialty of wine, Marsh says, drinkers today have no pattern. Instead, they want wines that jive with their pre-established tastes but are also adventurous.
When it comes to pairing wines with dinner, “Bring that one winery that they’ve never heard of,” Marsh suggests. “By the end of dinner, [they are asking for] their contact information.”
Marsh credits the Firehouse’s proximity to Napa Valley–the restaurant sits an hour drive from the vineyard capital of the U.S.–to establishing the restaurant’s roots in wine country.
“Really finding undiscovered country in the wine world is kind of tough, especially with the saturation of fine dining restaurants, especially here in the Bay Area and central California,” Marsh says.
“But being able to find something that’s still pure–they’re making wine because they love it or their fathers were growers, and they’re pulling out the wine where the earth has different notes, tweaking the barrels to pull out that extra [bit]–that’s the joy for me, is hearing how they do that and being able to taste it as well.”
One such grower is Luis Ochoa’s Family Vineyard, which Marsh sought out himself and ultimately decided to add to the Firehouse’s wine list. He traveled out to the vineyard to examine the growing processes and vintage tastes, and found exactly the type of small, rare grower he loves.
“His chardonnay gave me an idea of how it’d lay down in the cellar, even before it was purchased,” Marsh expains. “I could tell the timeline of when it’s peaking right now, [what taste] it develops into–lemon peels give way to a softer lemon custard component, and some of the chardonnay even had this brilliant, almost crème brulée aspect to it.”
Going beyond the boutique wines into the artisan and craftsman categories reinforce Marsh’s passion for his work.
“It’s almost like, you take that road that doesn’t really have a fancy sign on it, you find some of the best wines around here.”
By Sonya Chudgar