At first glance, writing an interesting, cost-effective wine list in Philadelphia seems like it would be a perfect catch-22—or, more cynically, a no-win situation. There are the ever-present PLCB headaches to contend with. Then there’s the issue of pricing. In a BYOB culture like Philly’s, guests are reluctant to order markup bottles they can buy more cheaply at Canal’s or Moore Brothers, so you have to find wines that aren’t readily available at the retail level. Finally, the issue of selection hovers over it all: How far can you really push your guests to think and drink outside their comfort zone?
Turns out that these obstacles are just that: Speed bumps to be overcome. And for the past several years, restaurants all over the city have been building exciting, occasionally challenging wine lists that make it affordable for guests to do a bit of grape-based exploration without breaking the bank.
So how are they doing it? And what really constitutes a good wine program these days?
“A good wine list really depends on a couple of things,” says Jason Evenchik, co-owner, with his wife Delphine, of Vintage (129 S. 13th St.), Time (1315 Sansom St.) and Bar (1309 Sansom St.). “One, the vibe or style of the restaurant. [Two,] the food that you’re serving, and the price point of the food. And [finally,] the demographic you’re going after.”
According to Evenchik, a great wine list is just as much a product of its context as it is its contents. In other words, what’s perfect for a barbecue joint is very different from what will work at an Asian spot.
The same remains true even when dealing with the area’s classic temples of fine dining. Le Bec-Fin, for example, offers a wide selection of classics and a deep catalog of back-vintage bottlings not only because that’s what’s expected of a restaurant of its ilk, but also because it goes with the food so well. A bottle of Chateau Latour 1982, while perfect with classic French haute cuisine, will fall relatively flat next to even the most perfectly prepared pad thai.
Beyond the context of the food, restaurants also have to consider the role wine will play in the overall experience they’re aiming to provide. Aimee Olexy, for example, has become highly regarded not just for the preparation of carefully curated, highly seasonal dishes at her restaurants Talula’s Table and Talula’s Garden (210 W. Washington Sq.), but also for the uniquely personal experience provided them. [Disclosure: I consulted on the wine program for Talula’s Garden.]
“I like to have something in-depth to talk about with people tableside,” Olexy says. “And when you’re dining, the experience you have is about your food, your wine, the setting, what’s going on in the world, your company, that sort of thing. And the greater value you place on all of those things, the greater the experience is.”
Placing value on those things isn’t only about finding great wine, however. For Olexy, as for Evenchik, it’s imperative that the wine program mesh well with the overall space and concept. So when she approached me to consult on the wine program at Talula’s Garden, it only made sense that we limit the wines we’d consider to those that were made in an environmentally friendly manner, were not mass-produced, and demonstrated some sort of artisanal commitment in their craftsmanship.
The risks of composing a list of wines like these is that guests may not be familiar with all, or even most, of them. But the benefits far outweigh any downside.
“I believe, as restaurateurs, that we should give clients much more credit than many restaurants do,” Olexy says. “People have no problem reading menus, understanding food preparations, learning about new or obscure grape varieties or regions ... and sometimes, restaurateurs assume that they don’t, but these are things that often actually turn into conversation pieces, and become almost like their own process of discovery.”
That sense of discovery, in fact, is one of the great benefits to the city’s ever-expanding crop of reasonably priced and idiosyncratic wine lists: As everyone I spoke with pointed out, it’s generally easier for a guest to order a wine they’re not familiar with if the price is a bit more moderate. Conversely, guests tend to get a touch more timid when ordering more expensive bottles.
At Vintage, “People don’t generally want to try [an unfamiliar bottle] for $80,” Evenchik explains. “They’d rather have a Napa cab or something else they’re familiar with.” He adds that generally, when “you get the people who know a little bit about wine and have some cash, they want to see [well-known labels like] Chateau Montelena or Cakebread, Stags Leap—they want to go with what they’ve heard of.”
Fortunately, there’s a bit of a shift happening right now, and as the Philadelphia drinking public becomes more open to exploring the world of wine, they’re also willing to take a chance on a bottle or a glass they’ve never heard of before just on the recommendation of the staff. To that end, Olexy points out that getting the staff behind the wine program, and educating them in its particulars, is a long-term project that not only pays dividends for the guests, but also for the careers of the servers and bartenders themselves: The education itself is a priceless long-term benefit.
Then, of course, there are those wonderful surprises that most guests may not expect when unfurling the wine bibles at restaurants like Vetri, Le Bec, Lacroix and The Fountain. These totemic dining destinations are increasingly home to some seriously interesting, often quirky offerings. Most of them, in fact, typically have been, as long as you knew where to look and were open to suggestions.
Sommeliers, beverage directors, consultants and restaurateurs are crafting lists that reflect who they are and what they value, as opposed to simply trying to assemble a list of the same old usual suspects. And this is happening at every strata of dining, from neighborhood bistros to high-end restaurants.
John Toler, sales manager for Dreadnought Wines, one of the most interesting portfolios around, sings the praises of lists like these. “As I get older, I’ve stopped apologizing for my own personal tastes,” he says. “And I don’t like to see a wine list that tries to cover all its bases. I would rather see a wine list that reflects the person that’s behind it.”
He continues, “If you’re passionate about a particular grape, a particular style, or a particular region, that’s great. I’d like to see that come through on the wine list. I might disagree with you, but at least it makes it an interesting wine list.”
The ever-evolving wine culture here reflects a trend that’s occurring all over the United States, much to the benefit of everyone. Olexy puts it best, and though she was speaking specifically of the list at Talula’s Garden, it could just as handily apply to other restaurants in the city that look at their wine programs through a similar lens: “The price points for the wines we’ve chosen say that these things aren’t [monetary] investments,” she said. “They’re an investment in a couple hours of pleasure and a beautiful memory.” And, she says, the selections should evolve, just as the menu does.