This article appeared in the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal and I found it to be an excellent read.
By LETTIE TEAGUE
Nov. 19, 2015 12:35 p.m. ET
PHOTOS: ANA NANCE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Putting together a restaurant wine list requires more than a few famous names and popular grapes, as Lettie Teague discovered when she followed the opening of New York restaurant Quality Eats.
HOW HARD CAN it be to put a wine list together? A few famous names, some popular grapes priced at a profit, and the job is done. But a really good wine list—one that excites and challenges diners (but not overmuch) and offers great bang for the buck—is much harder to pull off. It takes time and effort. In the case of Quality Eats, a new restaurant in New York, it took almost three months.
That’s how much time I spent, off and on, in the company of restaurant owner Michael Stillman and wine director Marc Passer, both 35, as they created Quality Eats’ wine list, menu and the restaurant itself.
The Greenwich Village eatery, conceived as an “affordable steakhouse,” is the most recent addition to the seven-restaurant portfolio of Fourth Wall Restaurants, where Mr. Stillman is president and Mr. Passer has been corporate wine director since 2011. The two men have put together many notable wine lists over the years at the group’s other Manhattan restaurants, which include Smith & Wollensky New York, Maloney & Porcelli, Quality Italian and Quality Meats.
Quality Eats’ wine list would be a departure of sorts for the team, Mr. Stillman said when I met the men for the first time in September. Unlike their other wine lists, which are quite large (Smith & Wollensky’s list has almost 1,000 bottles) and full of fancy, four-figure selections that appeal to expense-account diners, the Quality Eats list would be small and modestly priced. The selection, Mr. Stillman said, would have “a real neighborhood feel,” mixing well-known wines that comforted diners with ones that challenged them, a formula designed to entice patrons to return again and again. For example, to nudge diners out of their comfort zone, Mr. Passer might offer a Cabernet but not one from a famous region like Napa, sourcing it instead from a less popular—and cheaper—place.
To encourage experimentation, Messrs. Stillman and Passer planned to offer all of the wines on the list by the glass and bottle. For fun, they’re introducing a new concept—“stackable wine”—three separate, small carafes that can be stacked to create a standard 750 mL bottle. This would allow diners to order one-third white, one-third red and one-third rosé. They decided they would include nine to 12 stackable selections of popular varieties, with a stacked trio costing $40.
But this raised questions about the wine list. Should the stackable offerings be on the regular list or on a separate card? Should all the wines fit on one page? What typeface should Quality Eats use? “We want a wine list that everyone will get,” said Mr. Stillman, meaning one with a familiar look and feel. “Maybe the list would be in a report binder,” offered Mr. Passer. But Mr. Stillman was more focused on the expense of reprinting the pages of the list after repeated use, which he said could “easily cost $10,000.”
What about pricing? The markup on some wine lists in New York can be high, up to five times the wholesale cost of a bottle, and Fourth Wall’s uptown lists aren’t exactly cheap. The partners insisted that they wanted to keep Quality Eats’ markup in check. Mr. Passer thought it would likely be two to 2.5 times the wholesale cost. And he especially wanted the wines at the lower end of the scale to be impressive. “I want to wow someone with the entry-level offering,” said Mr. Passer. “When someone says, ‘I want the cheapest wine,’ I want to make sure it’s legitimately delicious.”
A few weeks after our initial meeting, it was time for the first of several wine tastings. Mr. Passer had emailed a number of wholesale-wine sales representatives, asking each to suggest bottles that were unusual or challenging “diamond-in-the-rough wines” and not from usual-suspect wineries such as Cakebread and Duckhorn. Nine of those who responded were scheduled to meet us in a private room at Fourth Wall’s Park Avenue Autumn restaurant in the late afternoon. They brought red, white, rosé and sparkling wines made from both obscure and famous grapes grown in regions all over the world.
“We’re looking for wines that are approachable and delicious,” said Mr. Passer as we entered the room where sales reps were waiting like so many prospective blind dates. The tasting, which lasted less than two hours and included close to 100 wines, was an opportunity for each salesperson to give a short spiel on each selection.
Two salesmen noted their wines’ exalted provenance: “It’s a northern Rhône declassified Cornas,” said one salesman, as we tasted and spat. “It’s like declassified Barolo,” said another of a Nebbiolo from the Langhe region of Piedmont. One sales rep tried an interesting tack, noting that his Syrah from California’s Sonoma Coast was “made by Alice Waters’s ex-husband.”
There were quite a few good wines and very few duds. None was particularly pricey; the most expensive cost about $40 wholesale. Most of the time, the three of us liked the same wine, although a few, like a California Tempranillo, left me cold. For Mr. Passer, it wasn’t just a matter of his personal likes or dislikes; he had to figure out where and how a wine fit in with the rest of his list and had to anticipate the preferences of his customers. For example, Mr. Passer needed two Chardonnays, one that was entry level (“never say cheap,” he noted) and one that was pricier (probably Burgundy). He also needed at least two Pinot Noirs, one that was rich and fruity and another in an earthier style.
After several weeks and tastings, Messrs. Stillman and Passer whittled the possibilities down to a final list: 34 bottles, plus 12 stackable offerings. The list was arranged according to color and grapes (i.e., Arneis, Ribolla Gialla, Kerner, Sauvignon Blanc). I recognized some of the wines I’d tasted and liked, such as the 2014 Lieu Dit Chenin Blanc from California and 2008 Château d’Arlay Pinot Noir, but others were missing—no Syrah from Alice Waters’s ex-husband? The partners had also decided to put the stackable wines on their own separate table card.
The restaurant was scheduled to open the following week, and when I stopped by for the staff training, it looked far from ready. There was no bar, and the bathrooms were unlit. But the men were unfazed. “I’ve never trained staff in a situation [where] there wasn’t some form of chaos,” said Mr. Passer. He was opening a number of wines for the staff, instructing them not only in how to taste but how to talk about them as well. He wanted them to describe wines in a relatable way, avoiding fancy words or excessive adjectives. “Use words like ‘bright acidity’ or ‘well balanced,’ ” Mr. Passer said over the whine of a buzzsaw.
As the staff tasted the bottles, Mr. Passer described the wines—from the grapes to the region where each wine was produced—and then quizzed them in turn. Did any of them drink Merlot? Did they know the flavors that oak-aging gave to a wine? And when a producer notes that a wine has been aged in 25% new oak, what does that mean anyway? A woman raised her hand: “A freshly killed tree?”
Quality Eats opened on time the following week. The bar was finished, the wine list was printed and the staff was conversant in proper winespeak. I had quite a few “well-balanced” wines on opening night, but I figured the staff would develop a larger wine vocabulary in subsequent weeks.
It hadn’t been easy or fast, and the locals who stopped in for a glass of Cabernet Franc from Domaine Philippe Alliet in the Chinon region of France’s Loire Valley might never realize how much work went into the wine list. But then that’s the point. A really good wine list looks effortless.
Thank you Lettie Teague for such a terrific article!