The Inside Story Behind a Wine List’s Creation……..

This article appeared in the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal and I found it to be an excellent read.

Nov. 19, 2015 12:35 p.m. ET
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.

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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.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 6.32.20 PMWhat 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.”

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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!



101 Best Wineries in America for 2015

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The Daily Meal – Alll Things Food and Drink website has an article not to be missed on 101 Best Wineries in America for 2015.  Some of our favorites are front and center on the list – Peay, The Scholium Project, Grammercy, Evening Land, Saxum, and Ridge.   The list and the article are definitely worth a read.

Pey Vineyard


Peay Vineyard

What is interesting is the increasing amount of wine, good wine, being made in unexpected places across the country. Wineries in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and even Brooklyn, NY made the list.


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And who chose these?  The wineries on The Daily Meal’s list were nominated by experts in the field — sommeliers, wine writers, chefs, and restaurateurs, along with wine editors at The Daily Meal.





Under $15 a bottle……….

Some friends have asked for recommendations for wine that would be easily available   from major liquor/wine stores around the country.  Not just good wines but good wines at under $15 a bottle.

Saturday John and I wandered through a Total Wine store in Sarasota and found some to recommend.  I’ve sent them on to our friends but I thought it would be interesting to post them here as well.

And yes, there is one bottle in the group, a Dry Creek Zinfandel that is $17 but it was worth including for those seeking an inexpensive zin.



A Grape Grower’s Party………..

In 1976 the California white and red wines defeated the French in the famous Paris Tasting. It was a momentous day!  The white wine that bested the famous French Burgundies was a 1973 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay.  40% of the grapes that created that award winning wine came from Charles and Helen Bacigalupi’s vineyard.


Bacigalupi Vineyard is now 125 acres and managed by John Bacigalupi.  They grow grapes for outstanding wineries including Gary Ferrell, Williams Selyem, Venge, and Wonderment, as well as producing their own wine.


On July 18th Bacigalupi threw a party and we were lucky enough to be among the guests in the sold out crowd.  Wines produced exclusively from the Bacigalupi vineyards were being poured by nineteen wineries and……


the food was catered by Bay Laurel Culinary and The Oyster Girls!


Photo credit: Bacigalupi









We had a blast!  Thank you Bacigalupi for making our last evening in wine paradise so special!




Healdsburg Adventures…….

This trip we visited a large array of tasting rooms.  Each and every one had developed a unique identity to help you remember them – farmstead, barrel tasting, wine cave, solar energy, organic farming, chocolate peanut butter cups with sea salt, refillable jug wine, retail store, creekside gardens, history, wacky antiques, and more.


There have always been destination wineries that have included a restaurant, picnic areas, a retail component or some venue to attract and keep visitors at their facility for more than just the tasting.

In the last decade the trend seems to have caught on for all tasting rooms to have some individuality. Visitors can easily loose track of the wines they have tasted over a day or more of tastings.  Wineries have taken to creating a visual identity they hope will impress you enough to remember than by more than their delicious wine.   Branding?  Think so………


The American Dream – A Success Story  – Valdez – Valdez Family Winery is on a side street in Healdsburg, off the square and if you visit Healdsburg – find it!  Unpretentious in appearance but warm and welcoming.  It is all about the wine and a success story that is quite outstanding.

Ulises Valdez was16 when he came from Mexico to the U.S.. He began as an undocumented worker, obtained U.S. citizenship, rose to making his mark managing vineyards for Mark Aubert, JC Cellars, Paul Hobbs, Pahlmeyer, and Ram’s Gate and now also produces award wining wines.  He started making wine in 2004 and his entire family has joined in to help with this rapidly growing business.


Ulises daughter Elizabeth poured our tasting. Angelica, her sister, who is responsible for the marketing, was in the tasting room too and took the time to introduce herself.  The passion these young ladies possess for the family wines is catching.IMG_3183

Ulises Valdez produces Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel wines  while continuing to manage over 1000 acres of vineyards for others.  You can read more in Wine Spectator and SFGate about this well regarded man and his family.


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We almost didn’t make it to Unti and that would have been too bad.  Carrie Mauritson recommended we stop there ( appointment necessary).  They schedule appointments a half hour apart to give the host and guest time to become familiar with their wines without the distraction of a full tasting room.


Unti is a small family winery that has been growing grapes since 1990. The have 60 acres at the site of the winery and another 25 acres across the road.

They describe their wines as “Mediterranean varietal wines with vineyard personality”. Sangiovese is one they are very proud to produce.  They believe the 2012 Sangiovese may be their finest to date.


Our host was a young UC Davis grad named, Kyle.   He is looking forward to moving out of the tasting room and getting his hands in the grapes.


We tasted  2014 Rose, 2014 Cuvee Blanc, 2012 Segromigno, 2012 Zinfandel, 2012 Syrah, 2012 Benchland Syrah,  and found the 2012 Zinfandel to be a favorite along with the 2014 Rose.




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Zichichi Family Vineyard is out on West Dry Creek Road.  It is 18 acres of zinfandel and petite sirah vines, all located directly behind the tasting room.  Some vines were planted in 1928, the rest in 1964.


Zichichi wants you to visit and is very welcoming to guests but these days you won’t get to taste their bottled wines.   They sell futures so their wine is often sold out before it is even bottled.


Currently you get a chance to barrel taste the wines that are offered for advance sales. These are their 2014 Estate Zinfandel, Estate Old Viine Zinfandel and Estate Petite Sirah.




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You feel as though you are entering a farm when you visit Preston’s tasting room.  Preston is actually just that – an organic farm and wine is one of many products they proudly produce and sell here.


On Saturday’s they bake fresh bread and on Sundays, for locals, they offer the chance to get their “jug wine” refilled.

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The facility has a gracious backyard for picnicking with at least a couple of barn cats roaming the farmstead.


We took advantage of the picnic grounds, relaxed and shared a bottle of 2012 Carignane with some of the fresh baked bread.


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Bella’s tasting room is back in a cave and wonderfully inviting on a warm summer day.


The associates at Bella are enormously welcoming.   We had a non-drinker in our party and she was treated with as much attention as the rest of our party. The cave venue is memorable but the chocolate peanut butter cups dusted with sea salt (we won’t reveal their source!) and their infamous jug wine insured our remembering Bella!


Some of the wines we tried were – a 2012 Ten Acre Russian Rriver Valley Pinot Noir which went down easily!  A jammy 2012 Hills and Benches Zinfandel that played 2nd fiddle to a 2012 Two Patch Zinfandel.  A 2009 Big River Ranch Syrah which had an amazing BBQ nose and the 2011 Todd Brothers Zinfandel  which was incredibly inexpensive and wonderful!


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You can wander through gardens, sit along the creek in an adirondack chair, visit with ducks and sheep, step under the olives trees or stay at the tasting bar and interact with one of their well-informed hosts at Truett Hurst.   If you are there at the right time of year you can even watch Coho Salmon spawn!  It’s an attractive venue with rich variety of wines to try starting with a crisp Gewürztraminer and on into some stately zins and red blends.  The staff encourages you to wander with your glass of wine and enjoy the place to its fullest.


The 2014 Queen Bee Gewürztraminer and the 2013 Bradford Mountain Grist Vineyards Zinfandel were two favorites among our party the morning we visited.

The tasting room has an impressive, well equipped stock of picnic foods to purchase including Cowgirl cheese choices so you can really settle in and appreciate what Paul Dolan and his son Heath along with Phil and Sylvia Hurst have created beside great wines!


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Sanglier (French for Wild Boar) has a tasting room in Healdsburg right off the square on Plaza Street.  They are making wines reflective of traditional grape varietals found in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the Northern Rhône regions of France.




We tried a number of the wines but we were most taken with the 2012 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – Left Tusque.


It’s a friendly tasting room that visually focuses on the winery’s character – the wild boar.   There is lots of art and products depicting the ferocious guy.  The best was the boar wine pourer! Wish’d gotten one!



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MacPhail Family Wines  produces their wine in their backyard.  Their home and winery is in  Healdsburg and their tasting room is in the very hip Barlow center in Sebastopol. The grapes for James MacPhail’s wines come from a number of select growers in the region, and he works to produce the very best Pinot Noir possible, along with Pinot Noir a bit of Chardonnay and Rose.


We tasted at the MacPhail tasting room in Sebastopol, in the Soil room.  The back wall of the room displays the soils from the different vineyards McPhail has chosen to draw his grapes from. It’s pretty amazing. Encased behind sheets of lucite it looks kinda like a giant ant farm sans the creepy creatures!


The Radio Flyer wagon is the winery logo and the visual image that clearly defines the  tasting room.


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St. Francis Winery & Vineyards farms more than 400 acres of Certified Sustainable estate vineyards in Sonoma Valley and Russian River Valley.  The facility is set up to host events,  weddings and private parties forever 200 people.  The tasting room is one of the largest we visited and is quite commercially oriented with an immense selection of wine paraphernalia and gifts.


The tasting menu was generous and our host added three more to give us nine to try.  Had we not been pressed to get to another appointment, we would have spent more time playing with the wines.


At St. Francis we were introduced to a rather clever decanter that attaches to the wine bottle allowing a perfect pour to aerate the wine then enabling a turn back over to replace the wine in the bottle to serve or to cork and take with you.



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Geyserville is just up the road from Healdsburg.  There we found Pech Merle’s tasting room on the main drag of town. We came to taste on the recommendation of our UPS delivery man who has developed a passion for nice wines.


Owners Bruce and Cheryl poured for us and shared their passion and commitment to making excellent wine.


The couple has purchased land on Dry Creek Road to build a future tasting room as they are able to produce more wine and as it grows in notoriety.  From what we tasted, it won’t be long!

We tasted a number of  their wines and purchased  the 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and 2012 Alioto’s Bench Zinfandel.


The tasting room is dotted with an eclectic, fun array of crazy, old items amidst a contemporary surrounding.   I was particularly drawn to the totally unusual, funky lamp on the fireplace mantle of a two-sided bare-breasted woman.   And, I am sorry I didn’t photograph the bike mounted on the wall behind the tasting bar.  I’m sure that would have appealed to many.




A Day in Napa……………



Nothing like starting your morning off with a 10 am tasting. We drove up Spring Mountain and began our day in Napa at Keenan Winery.


Keenan farms sustainably and in 2007 switched to 100% solar power for its facilities and homes on the property. The day we were there the winery was busy bottling using a mobile bottling contractor.


We were met by Amy, an engaging associate who got our morning off to a good start – pouring the 2013 Spring Mountain Chardonnay, a 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon which I personally loved, and a 2011 Merlot Cabernet – Mernet Reserve.  Amy has family in Sarasota so we exchanged some stories and news during our tasting.


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Orin Swift was our next stop in downtown St. Helena. Their tasting room is on the main street.


David Swift Phinney began making wines in 1998.  He can easily be referred to as a global winemaker as his products, delicious wines, are produced from grapes grown in  California, Spain, France, Italy, Corsica and Argentina.

Orin Swift wines sell out fast at the tasting room. You can taste many of the sell outs which can be helpful, in the event you can find an outlet that still has them on the shelf to purchase.


Katie Gorham was our host. Katie grew up in the St. Helena area and plans to make it her home after finishing her education. She was comfortable showing off the wines and introducing us to a few of the wines we had never had the opportunity of tasting before.

Trigger Finger Bottle Shot

The 2012 Trigger Finger (sold out) was a big favorite of ours.  It is 100% Grenache and all of us tasting agreed it to be outstanding – very special!  According to the website the 2013 vintage is sold out as well.


The 2012 Papillon was another unavailable wine except in large formats  We grabbed a magnum after tasting it.  It is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc.


A Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012 Mercury Head was yet another amazing wine.  At $95 a bottle, this wine is probably not considered outrageously priced for a Napa cab. It  is made from 100% cabernet sauvignon grapes and, it too, was sold out in every format.


The tasting room is a visual treat. It is modern and quite eclectic. The hosts are friendly and have created a bit of a party atmosphere in the room.

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We took a long lunch at Tra Vigne.  Their courtyard  is a beautiful place to relax and explore exceptional italian fare.  I dream about their Mozzarella “Al Minuto”and heirloom tomatoes!




Our day ended back in Sonoma at Tertulia with friends, family and more wine and great food.





A Destination Winery…….


logoRam’s Gate is the first winery you see driving north into Sonoma.  It’s just past the Sonoma Raceway. Roche Winery was formerly located on the site.

Ram’s Gate opened in 2011 in a stunning facility designed by architect, Howard Backen. The building is contemporary, barn like in appearance but detailed like a 5 star hotel. Orlando Diaz-Azcuy is responsible for much of the interior.

We had the pleasure of touring with Ram’s Gate’s GM, David Oliver.    His background in the hospitality industry is impressive. He made every one of us feel immediately welcome and gave us a very memorable tour through the expansive facility.


David explained to us how Ram’s Gate is a destination for members and guests to have an experience.  They have created an inviting environment to taste remarkable wines and to try innovative, chef prepared food pairings with the wines.

The variety of venues at the winery make this facility absolutely unique and most definitely set apart from other Sonoma winery’s offerings.

To start with there is a vineyard setting…….


a demonstration kitchen setting…….


a tasting bar……….


a number of lounges, patios and private nooks for relaxing and tasting……


a wine library with a fantastic chandelier………..


and an amazing barrel cellar dining setting……….


Ram’s Gate sources their grapes from a number of growers around the region.  One is Ulises Valdez who I plan to write about in another post. They do have some vineyards surrounding the winery and they are experimenting with binding the vines in at least one of their vineyards.



On our tour David explained the method Ram’s Gate uses to keep the vineyard free of the pest birds.  Coincidently the “pest control” man arrived while we were there.rgffApparently  a grape cluster can be ruined simply by a swallow pecking open one grape at the top of the cluster allowing the juice to run over the rest. A predator bird can prevent the swallows from damaging a crop.


It was so amazing to see this falcon close up and learn about his plans for the afternoon!



Our tasting was set in one of the large rooms overlooking the valley. The room seemed to be wide open, no barrier to the field before us.  There was even a constant breeze coming from the direction of the view.  We thought we were in a pavilion.  Hah!  There was in fact a  2-story wall of glass.  It was designed so incredibly well to give us the illusion of no glass.  Impressive!




Our host was Zac  a.k.a. “Zacky” Melendez, a certified sommelier.  He was charming and extremely knowledgable. He guided us through selections of food pairings the chef was offering that day.





Ram’s Gate does an absolutely fantastic job of tailoring a tasting to your desires.  We were there for 4 hours!  We could have stayed all day!



Thank you David Oliver, Zac Melendez and Chris for giving us such an exceptional experience  at Ram’s Gate!