Everybody and their brother is reviewing restaurants these days, and it’s all about the food. Cocktail culture is “de rigueur.” The poor wine list is barely mentioned. This lack seemed to be a good opportunity for me to rectify the situation—so I dove off into the deep end, determined to explore the State of the Wine List in Austin.
After much investigation, and just a bit of sampling, I am pleased to report the State of the Wine List to be robust.
Even some local outposts of national chains are noteworthy; for example, Fleming’s comes to mind. Yes, they are a steakhouse and, yes, a national chain. However, each location gets about 20 percent of the wine list to choose on their own, to explore and have some fun with local and unknown picks. Also, they offer 100 wines by the glass, 14 of them Texan selections.
James Cooke, Managing Partner of the Downtown Fleming’s, says: “Austin likes really cool wines. They're very adventurous drinkers, so we try to accommodate them, especially with our flights of wines and our by-the-glass program.” Cooke also mentions that, “with the Convention Center across the street, we have to keep a lot of the list more ‘national’ but we really want to have something for our locals too.”
Wine Manager Crissy Cornelius adds, “I like to keep the list seasonal, topical. I want it to be fun, experimental, but still offer a good value for our customers.” Staff training is also a huge part of their program, so that the staff is as wine savvy as they can be.
What else did I find? On to the list:
My investigation has shown an amazing trend in Austin. Our talent pool is huge on a per capita level. We have as many Master Sommeliers as any major city in the US—we have an even larger number of MS candidates and people with decades of experience, all with amazing palates. Many restaurants are now taking advantage of this talent pool, as well as Austin diners’ adventurous and sophisticated collective palate, and are stepping up their lists to meet West and East Coast standards.
Paggi House, for example, now has an amazing wine list. Fabi & Rosi has a charming, small but well-chosen list. Wink and Jeffrey’s continue their decade-long commitment to great wines. Special kudos to Chez Nous who, for decades now, have offered only French wines with their comfort-driven French food, and to Backspace for selecting only great Italian wines at reasonable prices to match their authentic Italian antipasti/pizza menu.
While most hotel restaurant lists are dismally sub-prime, we are fortunate that three stand out from the herd. First was Trio at the Four Seasons, who dumped the entire “Hotel Restaurant” concept for a “local restaurant that happens to be in The Four Seasons.” It's a lovely space, with an outside patio for dining when the weather permits. Sommelier Mark Sayre is a talented, friendly, warm guy who is as enthusiastic about his list as he is knowledgeable (a trait that is rather common in town). They stock a few “safe” labels for the guests who insist on them, and take a well-chosen, thoughtful approach with plenty of choices for any palate, including mine. Half price Happy Hour offers a great chance to check out the selection for a very reasonable cost, and the food is also excellent.
Second came Carillon at the ATT Conference Center (on the UT campus). With its soaring space and elegant, calm vibe, this space stands up with the best of them in Austin, despite the location. Chef Josh Watkins created an exciting, interesting and creative menu, and Somm. Patrick Jones rises to the occasion. “Chef changes the menu often, so I have to keep [the wine list] diverse. The food is local, reflective of the terroir, and the wines should be equally expressive.” Jones says. “I really want to have interesting wines so that we can educate the customers about the food and the wines. Chef and I both want to challenge, surprise and please the guests.” This is clear from the fact that 40 percent of their wines sales come from the pairings chosen to accompany the menu.
Third on the “ignore the location” list goes to the Driskill Bar & Grill. Recently renovated and freshened up, the modern, well-executed menu is accompanied by an outstanding list. Under direction of Somm. Scott Ota, the list offers a wide range of amazing choices. Ota allows that they have to have more common offerings because they are in a hotel, however he is proud (as is Jones) that “those wines” are only a small portion of the list. What makes the Driskill stand out is the wine list pricing. Usually restaurants mark up wine to 2.5- 3 times retail offering. That $15 bottle you bought at a shop will be $40-45 on a typical list, for example. Ota insisted that the Driskill change that idea. His wines are far more reasonably marked up, at about 50% over retail. He is also offering vintages older than most other places, which is really a treat to the wine drinking community. “I want wines really ready to drink now to show customers how good they are,” Ota tells me. He pointed out Ch. Les Hauts de Pontet Pauillac 1995 for $110, Ch. Prieuré-Lichine Margaux 1997 for $150 and Allegrini “La Poja” Veronese 2003 at $105 as just a few examples of both concepts in one bottle. Way to go!
The Truly Sublime
Two genuine stars grace Austin’s wine scene. While not slighting the rest, trust me, two people are leading the way forward for Austin’s wine lists.
June Rodil, just named “Best Young Sommelier in the US” by Wine & Spirits Magazine, is Beverage Director for Congress and Second Bar and Kitchen. June may be tiny in stature, but she is a giant when it comes to wine. “David [Chef Bull] and I are in daily discussion about the food and wines,” Rodil tells me. “I want the wine to highlight the food.” The list is probably the largest in Austin, topping 500 beautifully and thoughtfully chosen wines, and includes rarely seen First Growth Bordeaux Chateaux and Domaine de la Romanée Conti Burgundy.
“I want something for every type of palate. We are a ‘celebration restaurant’ so I want ‘celebration wines.’ And yes, the high profile wines are selling,” she adds. When asked what her philosophy was, Rodil answers without hesitating: “Its all about the service. We want to provide the best experience possible for the customer. They can take a leap or play it safe, they have the choice, regardless if that is with wine, a cocktail or non-alcoholic beverages. I run a comprehensive beverage program.” I had the pleasure of dining at Congress recently, and can confirm that they succeed on all these levels; the list at Congress is as good as any, not only in Austin, but can stand proudly in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.
Brian Phillips, at Haddington’s, deserves the “bravest” wine list in Austin tag. This list is not for the “label drinker,” as there is virtually nothing on the list that the casual wine drinker would recognize. No “label recognition” here. “We have a younger crowd. I want to challenge them just like our food challenges them,” Phillips says. “I want our wines to be natural, old-world style, instead of the mass-producers. I want them to reflect time and terroir, the true sense of place of each vineyard. However, every wine is here because its cool, not because its ‘weird” for the sake of being weird” he adds. He suggested these wines to demonstrate his point:
- At $46, Maison Champy Pernand Vergelesses Burgundy 2005. “I love wines with some age that drinks just perfectly, and at a great value. This wine is a classic style at an affordable price for someone to try something they would normally not have ordered.”
- At $28, Ch. D’Oupia “Tradition” Minervois 2008. “From 100-year old Grenache, Carignan and Syrah vines, bio-dynamically farmed, at an amazing price!”
I must concur that every wine on the Haddington’s list is cool, and some are very, very cool indeed. Such a brave list is a bit of a challenge, Phillips admits. “These small producers of high quality offer their own value, however it requires serious staff training. I make sure our staff tastes everything, even the $100 stuff,” he proudly says. All I can add is that my wine-loving friends from out of town all agree on one thing: they can’t find a list as well chosen, brave and “cool” as Haddington’s anywhere else in the country, except maybe in New York City. Wow. How cool is that, Austin?