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.