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Special Restaurant Issue | Wine

Discovery zone

Restaurants Are Pouring Adventurous Wines One Glass at a Time

June 20, 2004|David Lansing | David Lansing last wrote for the magazine about Manhattans.

A stylishly dressed young woman, clinging to her date's arm at Napa Rose in Disney's Grand California Hotel in Anaheim, tells Michael Jordan, the restaurant's manager and sommelier, that she'd like a glass of Chardonnay with her fish. "Anything in particular?" he asks. She shrugs. "Something good," she says.

I am dining with my wife in the next booth, and as Jordan glides by, he winks and smiles, happy as a kid in a candy store. A minute later, he returns with two bottles of California Chardonnay: Baileyana from Firepeak Vineyard in Edna Valley and Rochioli from the Russian River Valley. He pours a taste of each. The woman sips the Baileyana and her face lights up. "Oh, my," she says, pleasantly surprised. Then she samples the Rochioli and slaps the top of the table like the Meg Ryan character feigning orgasm in "When Harry Met Sally."

"Oh ... oh!" she exclaims. "That's yum-my!"

Jordan has done it again. Gotten a guest to utter the Y word. "I never tire of that," he says, shaking his head in amusement as he pours me another of his wines by the glass, this one a Caymus Vineyards "Belle Glos" Pinot Noir, a rare find on any wine list and virtually unheard of as a wine-by-the-glass offering. Its pure cherry flavors make me want to cry out ... well, yummy!

You can debate the merits of Los Angeles cuisine versus New York's or even San Francisco's, but no other area matches the quality and depth of Southern California's wines by the glass. Says Marian Jansen op de Haar, wine director for Fleming's, which has eight of its 24 restaurants on the East Coast and is known for its 100 wines by the glass: "Our wine program in the East is less adventurous, partially because we don't have the access to boutique California wineries and partially because California wines aren't as well known in the East."

The Fleming's in Newport Beach, the chain's most successful restaurant, offers Silver Oak, Duckhorn Cabernet and other usual suspects, but also such surprises as Blackjack Ranch Merlot from Los Olivos and an EOS Zinfandel from Paso Robles. Both winery owners frequently dine at the restaurant.

Although wine-by-the-glass selections at Napa Rose and Fleming's favor California wineries (Napa Rose has about 60 wines by the glass, about 90% of which are from California; 75% of Fleming's 100 wines by the glass are domestic, most from California), there are European possibilities as well.

Enoteca Drago in Beverly Hills has 50 wines by the glass--all Italian. "It's a wine list that, for me, requires a lot of patience," wine director Jeff Morgenthal says. "There's no California Chardonnay, no French Bordeaux. When people think of Italian wine, they tend to think of Chianti or super Tuscans." But he has surprises in store for the adventurous, such as a Colterenzio Pinot Bianco from northern Italy near the Austrian border, a crisp, classic Italian-style wine that tastes like summer on your tongue. "I think it would be hard to drink a greater white wine in all of Los Angeles for under $10 a glass," Morgenthal says.

Although most restaurants try hard to include a range of wines at different prices, don't be surprised to pay more at places with extensive wine-by-the-glass menus. That's because the "pours" come from more expensive bottles of wine, and the spoilage on a $30 or $40 bottle cuts heavily into restaurateurs' profits. But if $18 or even $12 seems too much for a glass of wine, there are options. At Enoteca Drago, for instance, a 2.5-ounce "pour"--for someone just dying to try that super Tuscan on the list--is half the price of a full glass.

Because Italian wines can be terra incognita for many diners, Morgenthal spices up his wine-by-the-glass list with signpost descriptors. Thus a juicy Lambrusco goes under the "Purple, Tingling and Extraordinarily Drinkable" heading, while a rare Martilde Bonarda--a varietal Morgenthal says is unfamiliar to even most wine geeks--comes under the "Wines That Dare to Be Different" banner.

The queen of great L.A. wine-by-the-glass restaurants is Caroline Styne of A.O.C. In fact, it's hard to tell whether this is a fabulous restaurant with a stunning wine list or an amazing wine bar with appropriately small plates of food. Styne acknowledges that the wine definitely drives the business at A.O.C. In fact, the star at A.O.C. isn't the chef but a gleaming stainless steel Cruvinet (a French machine for preserving opened wine bottles) above the bar that dispenses 50 wines by the glass. There's a communal feel in the restaurant as people order small plates of charcuterie--such as grilled squab or cheese, Pecorino from Italy or a goat cheese from the Pyrenees--and talk about their selections while sharing tastes of Gruner Veltliner from Austria (which Styne lovingly calls "a wine-geek wine") or a Syrah by Livingston Moffett in Napa Valley, a wine that, at $9 a glass, gives "huge bang for the buck."

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